Failing Water and Failing Schools

Flint, Michigan is another predominantly black city in the U.S. whose local government has been replaced by a governor-appointed dictator (usually given the benign title of ‘manager’). This is usually in response to budget deficits and other monetary woes. However, in Flint, the appointed dictator took a budget crisis, which can be solved with the stroke of a pen, and turned into a flat-out public health emergency, by inflicting lead poisoning on the children of Flint.

Brain damage isn’t fixed with the stroke of a pen.

While effects of this lead poisoning on education have been mentioned, it’s truly horrifying to realize the effect on educational performance. A recent study describes the effects of lead poisoning on achievement test scores in Rhode Island (pdf; boldface mine):

We consider a new source of racial disparities in test scores: African American students’ disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins, and, in particular, lead. Using a unique individual-level dataset of children’s preschool lead levels linked with future educational outcomes for children in RI, we document significant declines in racial disparities in child lead levels since 1997, due largely to state policies aimed at reducing lead hazards in homes. Exploiting the change in child lead levels as a result of the policy, we generate causal estimates of the impact of preschool lead levels on reading and math test scores through grade 8 in an IV framework. We find that a 5 ug/dl increase in child lead levels reduces test scores by 30-60 percent of a standard deviation, depending on the specification. The effects are strongest in the lower tail of the test score distribution and do not fade over time. We calculate that the decline in racial disparities in lead explains between 37 and 76% of the decline in racial disparities in test scores witnessed over the past decade in RI.

To put this in context, 0.3 to 0.6 standard deviations is huge: if an intervention yields a 0.05 standard deviation change, that’s considered a success.

If this effect carries over to a test like the NAEP, the effects become even worse. The effects of lead poisoning are close to the low-income/non-low income difference or the black-white difference, which are typically around 0.67 standard deviations.

State-wide in Michigan, the median learning-disabled child is a full standard deviation below the median non-disabled child (1.03 to be precise) on eighth grade math if the child is low-income; if not, the median learning-disabled child is one and one third standard deviations below the below the median non-disabled child.

If we assume that lead poisoning lowers test scores by 0.5 standard deviations–and given the massive poisoning in Flint (this isn’t just air pollution or eating flakes of paint–it was in the water) that doesn’t seem unreasonable, what this means is that learning disabilities, rather than being ten to fifteen percent of the student population (using the median learning-disabled score as a cutoff) would be twenty to thirty percent of the student population.

How is an already cash-strapped city supposed to pay for this? Even if we, as a nation were to do the decent thing, and attempt to equalize school funding, this is a massive burden for any community to bear.

As both Democratic candidates noted over the weekend, should be grounds for removal from office, if not serial child endangerment.

But it gets worse: guess what the new job of the dictator (’emergency manager’) who poisoned Flint’s children is?

Running Detroit’s public schools.

More opportunity to brain damage Michigan’s children.

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