The Flint Effect: Will One City’s Crisis Spark A National Awakening?

Jeff Bryant

When news about lead contamination in the water supply of Flint Michigan made headlines across the nation, many compared the crisis to Hurricane Katrina. Even Michigan Governor Rick Snyder called the disaster “his Katrina,” comparing the failure of government leadership in his state to the failure of public officials who left Katrina victims stranded.

But while Katrina was a singular event with a tragically long legacy, Flint is proving to be the beginning of a story playing out over a much longer time period and in more than one place.

It’s the difference between a blockbuster movie and the season opener of a TV serial.

In an update on Flint from the New York Times, we learn the crisis is anything but over. “Reports of rashes, itchiness, and hair loss” are making people fearful of using the city water to bathe in. “Families are going to extraordinary lengths to find places where they can bathe without fear,” the report says

And of course what’s yet to come is evidence of the irreversible damage done to the developing brains and nervous systems of Flint’s children due to the exposure to lead.

But what makes Flint more of a presage is the realization it’s sparking around the country about the conditions being inflicted on our youngest citizens.

Flint Is Everywhere

When New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “America is Flint,” he branded the crisis a “wake-up call” to address the national problem of lead toxicity in children’s environments.

Now we know some public officials indeed stirred. As the Associated Press reports, Flint prompted school officials in many places to test classroom sinks and cafeteria faucets for lead.

What they found was alarming: “Among schools and day care centers operating their own water systems … 278 violated federal lead levels at some point during the past three years. Roughly a third of those had lead levels that were at least double the federal limit.”

The reporters found an elementary school in Wisconsin with pipes, buried in the concrete foundation, leaching lead into the tap water and a Head Start center in Missouri whose relatively new building showed up with high levels of lead in the water. These facilities have switched to bottled water at considerable cost.

“No state is immune to the problem,” the article states.

The AP story follows other disturbing reports from big-city school systems plagued with lead in school drinking water. As Mother Jones reports, schools in Boston, Baltimore, Camden, and Newark “have been drinking trucked-in water for years due to lead concerns.” (The writer could have mentioned Philadelphia, too.)

The article calls schools with verified lead levels “the lucky ones” because officials at least know the water is toxic and have taken steps to address that. The much bigger problem is that many school systems simply don’t know the danger flowing through their pipes.

The article quotes a university professor who studied lead contamination in Flint, who observed, “It’s definitely the schools that you do not hear about” that are the most concerning.

It’s The Aging Infrastructure, Stupid

A significant part of the problem is that, according to Mother Jones, “roughly 90 percent of the nation’s schools aren’t required to test their water.”

But the issues go way beyond testing. As the AP reporter explains, in “almost all cases” of lead contamination, “the problems can be traced to aging buildings with lead pipes, older drinking fountains, and water fixtures that have parts made with lead.”

So even when municipal water supplies show no contamination with lead, that’s no assurance schools are lead free. Lead pipes weren’t banned until 1986, AP explains, but the average age of school buildings in America “date to the early 1970s.”

Some communities have addressed their aging school infrastructure by simply closing old buildings down. But taking that option can result in a number of potentially negative consequences.

First, after closing school buildings down, students still need somewhere to go to school, and again school buildings can often be a systemic problem. There are other problems as well.

As Rachel Cohen explains in a report for The American Prospect, closing down school buildings, even aging ones, has proven to be a very controversial issue in communities across the country. Cohen points to a number of cities where school closings have destabilized neighborhoods, devastated small businesses, and lowered local property values.

“Public schools have always impacted communities in ways that go beyond just educating young people,” Cohen writes, citing the benefits of “well-maintained school facilities” to economic vitality and civic life.

Also, old school buildings that are poorly maintained and in need of repair are located disproportionately in low-income communities of color, which has prompted education and civil rights advocates to connect school closings to charges of race and income discrimination.

Further, a majority of schools that are closed aren’t really closed for good. In fact, most find a second life as charter schools, and the problems don’t go away; they just change hands.

“Rather than shutter schools,” Cohen explains, “residents argue districts should reinvest in them.”

The Investment We Need

Where will the money come from?

“Increasing state and federal spending could both help struggling urban schools, and also help fortify communities more broadly,” Cohen says. She quotes an expert on school infrastructure spending who suggests the federal government “start contributing at least 10 percent toward district capital budgets” to low-income communities to Title I funding.

Much better still would be a national program addressing our aging education infrastructure. Congress is currently engaged in budget talks, but so far rescuing school children from their increasingly unsafe learning environments hasn’t been on the agenda, with one exception.

The exception comes from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose People’s Budget includes an investment of $1 trillion to “transition to 21st Century infrastructure, which ensures our roads, bridges, railways, and facilities are strong and that no town experiences the devastating effects of crumbling infrastructure we’ve seen in Flint, Michigan.” The CPC also calls for “greater investments in K-12 education.”

What better investment is there than making sure school buildings are safe and healthy?

The fact that Flint is not only staying in the news, but is also still in conversations in Congress, is testament to how disturbing the story is. But now that we know that Flint is really everywhere, it’s time to go beyond merely being disturbed to taking specific actions. Millions of school children are relying on us.

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