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Est. April 5, 2002
March 10, 2016 - Issue 644

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Connecting the Dots
Cartel Public School Privatization
Lead Poisoning in Flint
Part XIV

"Beginning in the 1990s, lead poisoning became
intertwined with education reform initiatives as
the Cartel of corporate and foundation leaders,
and their surrogates, came to realize that the
prevalence of lead poisoning in school children
in under-funded and under-performing urban
schools could be part of their strategy to promote
private-sector alternatives to public schools."

Since the early 1900s, lead has been deemed a damaging and poisonous environmental pollutant for workers and individuals living in houses infused with lead paint. In late 1991, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan, designated lead as the "number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States."

In 1972, I assisted my graduate school colleague, Dr. Juanita Gaston (Professor Emeritus at Florida A & M University) in collecting blood samples from inner-city, grade-school African American children in Lansing, Michigan for her Masters’ thesis. Blood lead levels had spiked among Lansing school children residing in dilapidated housing riddled with lead paint. Her findings confirmed the severity of the problem and were reported to the Lansing City Health Department. No corrective actions were undertaken until the mi- 2000s, more than thirty years after the documentation of the problem was presented.

Adults and children can be exposed to lead in a variety of ways: through air via the ingestion of lead-based dust, lead exhaust from cars (although less in recent years), lead from toxic industries (which tend to be concentrated in or nearby poor neighborhoods), drinking water, food, contaminated soil, deteriorating paint through chips which are randomly eaten by young children living in housing and neighborhoods enveloped by all of the above.

Most homes built before 1960 contain heavily leaded paint. Some homes built as recently as 1978 also contain lead paint. For decades, lead poisoning has been central to the educational challenges faced by low-wealth students (those qualifying for free- and reduced-priced lunch) in numerous urban public school systems across the country. During this period, and continuing to the present, city and state government did little to remedy this problem. Lead abatement programs were few and inconsistent, local health departments did not address lead poisoning as a major public health hazard, the necessary funding was never appropriated, and those citizens who did raise the issue were routinely ignored.

Young children exposed to excessive amounts of lead may exhibit significant deficits in many and/or all of the following characteristics:

  • Fine motor skills,

  • Language comprehension and production,

  • Intellectual functioning,

  • Reduced problem-solving flexibility,

  • Poor behavioral self-control,

  • Learning and memory efficiency,

  • Speech articulation,

  • Ability to sustain attention to task,

  • Organization and thinking behavior, and

  • High, unregulated activity levels.

These barriers to a successful education experience disproportionately doom hundreds of thousands of poor children of color in urban settings to failed educational outcomes for which they are blamed individually due to their alleged genetic intellectual inferiority (see Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s bestselling The Bell Curve, 1994 which purported to scientifically affirm this allegation). Teachers, especially those of a Caucasian background, are also held solely responsible for their lower educational performance.

Beginning in the 1990s, lead poisoning became intertwined with education reform initiatives as the Cartel of corporate and foundation leaders, and their surrogates, came to realize that the prevalence of lead poisoning in school children in under-funded and under-performing urban schools could be part of their strategy to promote private-sector alternatives to public schools—corporate and virtual charter schools, publicly-funded vouchers for private and religious schools, and the takeover of public schools and public school districts by Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) and Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).

The recent lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan has energized urban activists across the nation to step forward to re-focus attention on the ongoing lead crisis in their communities.

For example, I attended a lively forum on lead poisoning at the Camden, New Jersey OEO Building last Saturday, March 5, 2016. It was hosted by Mangaliso Davis, an environmental activist and featured Dr. Charles Rico, a Water Resource Management Expert and Certified Water Quality Improvement & Equipment Specialist. They provided evidence to show that lead poisoning has been widespread in Camden for more than three decades through polluted air, lead-based paint in homes and apartments built before 1960, contaminated soil, and dust.

African American and Hispanic families, and especially their children, were and are the primary victims. They have been historically restricted to housing coated with lead paint as a result of lower incomes and segregated housing practices. Moreover, many of the children have already ingested lead in their homes while toddlers between the ages of two and five.

However, contemporarily, the greatest lead poisoning threat in Camden has come from its toxic water system and mold and asbestos in public school buildings. Camden City School students are being negatively impacted to a greater degree by lead in the water system than school children in Flint, Michigan whose lead water crisis has received national attention. The R.T. Cream Family School, the city’s worst example, is currently operating as a lead chamber, of sorts, for Camden children who breathe lead-based air, are surrounded by mold, and forced to eat their lunch and receive instruction in an environment that is dangerous to their health on a daily basis.

Although, Mr. Davis and Dr. Rico formally brought these issues to the attention of Mayor Dana Redd in a detailed letter in 2013 with robust proof, she has not responded to these concerns. Like Flint, also a majority-minority city, Camden citizens and children of color are being sacrificed on the altar of gentrification and profit.

Elsewhere, Milwaukee, Wisconsin community leaders will be holding a press conference at City Hall today at noon to address the city’s enduring lead problem.

Nevertheless, Mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s health officials state unequivocally that no "lead is … found in Milwaukee's source water or public water system." City officials go on to say that "lead can enter water" because of regular wear and tear of "materials containing lead in building fixtures, internal plumbing, or in the service line" transporting water to building structures. But an investigative story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the city’s major newspaper, estimates that it would cost more than $500 million to replace and/or repair pipes delivering water to Milwaukee’s homes.

The expenses associated with the more than 70,000 homes that will require pipe/line replacements to ensure lead free water is being passed on to property owners living in high poverty areas of the city. Before passing these costs on to Milwaukee taxpayers, Mayor Barrett attempted to sue the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company in 2006 in an effort to get them to shoulder the financial burden for Milwaukee’s long-term lead disaster. The Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the suit in a summary judgment pointing out that it had no merit whatsoever, as Sherwin-Williams did not contribute to lead in Milwaukee homes and buildings in any way.

In addition, the response of city health officials is to ask citizens in the areas at greatest risk to run water before they use it and to tell them that Milwaukee’s water treatment facility has safely treated its water with chemicals to reduce the risk of lead leaching from plumbing pipes and lines into water. They neglect to mention that the deterioration of the pipes over time can overpower the chemical additives.

The Flint, Michigan water debacle has had its greatest impact by bringing attention to the severity of lead poisoning in America’s urban centers. Yet few of our elected leaders at any level of government are assembling the resources to rectify the situation. Flint Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver is one of the rare public officeholders who is facing this catastrophe head on.

Meanwhile, Michigan Governor Dan Snyder is using this opportunity to further privatize public schools in Flint, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Michigan’s other majority-minority cities, along with the Cartel and its allies, who are employing similar tactics in Newark and Camden New, Jersey, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and other cities targeted for the dismantling of public education—all of which have major problems with lead poisoning in their water systems.

Many will question whether this is a corporate conspiracy as I suggest. You can make a personal judgment or “believe your own lying eyes” as the data to support this calamity continue to mount.

Click here for links to all parts of this series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and National Public Radio’s The Connection to discuss public school privatization, and he has lectured to parent, teacher, and union groups throughout the nation. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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