DETROIT — In recent weeks, President Obama seems to have gotten his groove back as a speaker, enthralling and challenging audiences as he did eight years ago.
Nor has he been afraid to rap a few knuckles when necessary. On May 7, he gave the commencement speech at Howard University, a well-known historically black college. After praising the students and celebrating how far race relations have come, he took them to the woodshed.
Not for something they did — but for what they so often don’t do: Show up to vote.
“Your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.” The President acknowledged that wasn’t always easy. He told them that is was true that half a century after the Voting Rights Act had passed, “there are still too many barriers in this country to [voting.]”
But that was no excuse; he said, suddenly sounding stern. “You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other people did that for you. You got to vote all the time, not just when it is cool.” He knew they turned out in huge numbers when he was on the ballot — and then had faded away when he wasn’t there.
In Michigan, too, voting turnout among African-Americans and the young is usually dismal, something that has contributed to massive GOP legislative majorities.
Now, the city is feeling the result. Detroit Schools are drowning in half a billion dollars of debt.
Driven nearly bankrupt by a huge flight of students to charter schools, and plagued by corruption, Michigan’s largest school district was only able to finish the year thanks to an emergency appropriation. Despite much fanfare and many promises, a parade of emergency financial managers failed to get the finances under control, or stop the bleeding.
Detroiters are nearly all Democrats, and Michigan’s heavily Republican legislature is not naturally inclined to do a lot for a city where they are never going to get any votes.
However, the state does have a constitutional obligation to educate its children, and there is some recognition that a collapse of the city’s largest school system could not only cost the state more than any bailout — but severely hamper the state’s image as it scrambles to attract new jobs.
Gov. Rick Snyder is a Republican, but has been pushing a plan to fix Detroit’s schools that has won bipartisan praise. It would to some extent mimic the successful General Motors bankruptcy: The schools would be divided into an old district, in charge of paying down the deficit, and a new one, which would have funds freed up to educate the students.
The plan, which would require about $715 million in new revenue to resolve debt and transition costs, would also create a Detroit Education Commission, which would have authority over where any new schools, public or charter, could open in the city. The idea was to try to eliminate the self-destructive competition for students.
The state senate basically agreed to the governor’s plan — but the much more ideologically right-wing lower house did not. Instead, they passed a plan only providing $500 million to resolve the debt and refused to put any restrictions on charter schools, many of which have been found to be substandard.
The house plan also contained a number of punitive measures aimed against teachers’ unions.
State Rep. Leslie Love, a freshman Democrat whose district includes a portion of Detroit and the blue-collar suburb of Redford, is deeply unhappy with the house bill.
That’s not surprising, given that it has been denounced by every Democratic legislator and seemingly every teacher in the state. Ms. Love, 44, is African-American, as is almost 80 percent of her district. Unlike the majority of her voters, however, she is highly educated, with a bachelor’s degree in theater and a master’s degree in human resources.
She got into politics, she told me, because she wanted to make a difference for her community — but told me while she intended to keep fighting, it was hard not to feel disillusioned.
Over lunch the day before the President’s speech, I asked her why she thought black turnout was so disappointingly low.
She looked at me. For some voters, she said, the ballot itself is terrifying and hard to understand. “It may say, vote for not more than one. Often, they may not know what that means.
“But they have their pride and dignity and are too ashamed to ask. So they just don’t vote,” she told me.
Nor does Michigan make it easy to vote; Republicans in the legislature have killed every attempt to have early voting, or make absentee ballots easier to get. Sharon Dolente of the Michigan Election Coalition told me voters in some inner-city neighborhoods had to wait hours to cast a ballot in 2012.
Many, who had child-care or work issues, gave up. President Obama may have been right in urging Howard graduates to vote. But in some places, notably Detroit, access to the ballot is still is anything but equal.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: email@example.com.
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