Sheltering in place: For students in Donald Trump-loving coal country, "school choice" isn't a solution

The only high school in Martin County, KY, is condemned. 45% of its minors live in poverty. How will Trump help?

Published December 31, 2016 2:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

In August of 2013, Sheldon Clark High School closed its doors. During the previous school year, blasting through the Appalachian mountains for a nearby highway project, occurring at times as close as 100 feet away from the school building, had students sheltering beneath their desks with their hands over their heads. Giant boulders and debris regularly fell from the mountains that surround school grounds.

Cracks in the already outdated floors and walls began to lengthen. Officials deemed the school unsafe, but Sheldon Clark is the only high school in Martin County, Kentucky, and there was no other place to put the students. Eventually, after the school year had been delayed for almost a month, school board members decided the approximately 600 high schoolers would be squeezed into the local middle school, which was equipped to serve only 400 students, until other arrangements could be made. Those 400 displaced middle schoolers would be crowded into another local middle school.

More than three years later, students are still sheltering in place, and though architectural plans for a new high school are being considered, the current budget is so tight that amenities like an auditorium and a community technology center are not yet feasible. Regardless, school officials hope to begin building a new high school in the fall of 2017.

Despite the difficulties facing the public schools in Martin County, in the 2016 presidential election, the majority of area voters chose Trump, the candidate who during his campaign stated the Department of Education must be eliminated or severely curtailed, who unsuccessfully tried to woo poor urban African-American and Hispanic-American voters with a proposition of $20 million in federal funds for school choice, and who has now, as president-elect, chosen Betsy DeVos, a billionaire with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, as his Secretary of Education.

While this outcome may have seemed inevitable to outsiders who think of Kentucky as an exclusively red state, as a native east Kentuckian, I can attest it has not always been so. Past support by Democrats for better pay and working conditions for coal miners like my grandfather kept Republicans from having such an extreme political stronghold in the region for many years. In both 1992 and 1996, most Kentuckians voted for Bill Clinton. And, until Nov. 8, 2016, Kentucky’s House of Representatives had remained staunchly Democrat for 85 years, creating at least some semblance of a bipartisan balance of power (though it must be said that both Republican Party and Democratic Party candidates in the 2011 gubernatorial election expressed their commitment to maintaining Kentucky’s coal industry). Still, the number of Kentuckians voting Republican has risen steadily, and a staggering 89 percent of Martin County voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump this year.

I teach English at a community college in eastern Kentucky, and many of the writing assignments I give my students engage them politically. This past year my students almost exclusively wrote about being excited and hopeful for the prospect of a Trump presidency. As a liberal-minded academic, I sometimes find their political views baffling. As a native of eastern Kentucky who grew up in nearby Letcher County attending the same struggling public schools, not so much. After all, I think it is reasonable to acknowledge that these students have only been conscious of politics for the last decade, and during Obama’s presidency they were unquestionably left behind. If there is one mantra I read time and time again in the papers they write, it’s that they have an overwhelming sense of being forgotten by or invisible to their own country. For example, several of my students repeatedly bring up all the national attention Flint’s water crisis has received, how people on the news seemed shocked that Flint residents are forced to pay for undrinkable water, how bottled water is a necessity. Many of my students remind me that they’ve been drinking bottled water their whole lives, that they’ve never known anything different.

I’ve come to believe that voters in Martin County, like most of eastern Kentucky, exhibit a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome with Big Coal, defending and supporting the exploitative and abusive actions of the companies that continue to hold them and their families financially hostage. Coal companies lie and pander to their hostages, twisting the narrative to justify their shady behavior and shift blame to their political opponents and even to eastern Kentuckians who can’t take the heat and sell out to a coddling liberal agenda. Eastern Kentuckians tend to empathize with coal mine owners and excuse the unchecked abuse they receive. Thanks to bravado-laden pro-coal propaganda (“Coal Keeps the Lights On” and “Coal Miners Do It in the Dark”), they even irrationally identify with Big Coal bosses, seeing themselves not at the bottom of the coal food chain, but as an integral part of the same culture, the same brotherhood as the billionaires who profit from their broken bodies and impoverished lives, believing that they share some sort of traumatic bonding or understanding with their captors.

More than 391 million tons of coal have been extracted in Martin County, and despite an apparent global trend to slow the use of fossil fuels, despite subsequent mine closings and layoffs following Obama’s “war on coal,” the wistful narrative of the hard-working, self-sacrificing coal miner making a comeback persists. In the eleventh hour and toward the end of his presidential tenure Obama agreed to send $404 million to begin rebuilding coal country, but many eastern Kentuckians, including myself, felt it was too little, too late. And, though I proudly voted for Hillary Clinton in spite of her brag that she intended to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” because I read her pragmatic and entirely plausible plan to revitalize the region, I also knew her insensitive comment was the final nail in her coffin for most eastern Kentucky voters.

Of course, the refusal of corporate Democrats to acknowledge the national debt and restitution owed to America’s coalfields does not diminish the fact that Big Coal couldn't care less about eastern Kentuckians, and mine owners and operators could not have made this reality more exceedingly clear. For example, on an October night in 2000, a coal slurry spill occurred in Martin County when the (questionably thin) base of an impoundment owned by Massey Energy broke into an abandoned underground mine, sending an estimated 306 million gallons of sludge containing measurable amounts of arsenic, mercury, and lead down two tributaries of the Tug Fork. By the next day, nearby creeks were teeming with oily, black waste. The spill covered residents' yards and tainted hundreds of miles of the Big Sandy River and its tributaries as well as the Ohio River. The water supply for more than 27,000 people was contaminated.

The spill was 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and was one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the southeastern United States, according to the EPA. Massey spent millions cleaning up the mess, and officials insist the water is cleaner now than it was before the spill, though Martin County continues to be plagued by frequent water outages and boil advisories. Tap water in Martin County is often milky, brown or yellow, and smells like paint thinner. It has even caught the attention of Erin Brockovich, who occasionally via social media shares photos and stories Martin County residents send her in the hopes of garnering some national attention and assistance. Then-U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Trump’s now-proposed Secretary of Transportation, oversaw the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the time of the disaster. In 2002, a mere $5,600 fine was levied.

But Martin County is still beautiful. Dark, dramatic mountains containing herds of elk and deer and surrounded by intricate networks of streams are bordered on one side by West Virginia and on the other by the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. Most of the approximately 13,000 residents who live in towns with names like Beauty, Tomahawk, Laura, Lovely and Inez, the county seat — previously named Eden after the biblical garden — come from families that have been in the region for 300 years or more. Eastern Kentuckians are proud of our ancestry.

We are also quite used to living in poverty. It is part of our shared history, which we experience simultaneously as a badge of honor and a mark of shame. Martin County’s courthouse was completed in 1941, but only thanks to the help of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. President Lyndon Johnson visited the county in 1964, using photographs of struggling locals to garner support for his proposed War on Poverty, and residents quickly became the national face of lack, a sore point for many who still live there. In spite of Johnson’s well-intended but utterly failed war, Martin County remains one of the poorest in the nation. Its poverty rate is 35 percent, 45 percent for those under the age of 18, which is more than twice the national average. In the year 2000, the per capita income for the county was $10,650. Only 9 percent of Martin County adults have a college degree.

Through Big Sandy Community and Technical College, I teach online dual-credit English 101 and 102 to Sheldon Clark students. Most of my students’ work is done online, but at least once during the school year I visit them face to face so the college credit they’re receiving feels more tangible to them, so that they can see that there is in fact an actual human teacher on the receiving end of their emails.

On my first visit I had difficulty finding the school, because my GPS sent me to the condemned high school, and of course the students were no longer there. I stopped to ask a woman walking on the narrow, twisting road where I could find the high school students, and she explained that “they’re all at the middle school now” and told me where to find it.

At the middle school, the secretary directed me toward the small, shabby library, where my students were patiently waiting. We chatted over the donuts I brought about their goals and dreams and the specific challenges they face. They are lovely students, exuberant and tightly knit. Most of the boys wear camouflage and are proud of their hunting skills; those who have cell phones were eager to show me pictures of the deer they had dressed and put in the freezer for winter. Many of the girls were exquisitely made up in cosmetics purchased at the newly-opened ULTA in nearby Pikeville (such new businesses are always a big deal in the region), where my campus is located. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one student whom I knew from her essays to be openly gay, a butch girl with a raucous laugh, was clearly at ease with her classmates, who hugged her and laughed at her snarky jokes. At least one student was pregnant and beginning to show, but the group was visibly excited to meet her baby, and they all talked about how much they planned to spoil the child — how they’d always be friends. Nearly all my dual-credit students work a minimum-wage job in addition to attending school and caring for younger siblings and ailing grandparents while their parents piece together whatever work they can find at fast-food and Walmart chains or the Big Sandy Federal Penitentiary.

Last year, Kentucky’s Republican governor Matt Bevin slashed funding to Kentucky’s public universities and colleges. Facing a $26 million shortfall, Kentucky’s community college system cut 506 positions, including 170 faculty and staff jobs that were occupied. My students vocalized frustration and sadness at this news, but still maintained that Bevin intends to renew the coal industry and bring back jobs to eastern Kentucky. In September of this year, when Kentucky’s Supreme Court ruled that Bevin’s proposed cuts were illegal, for a brief moment educators like myself breathed a sigh of collective relief. We know it is inevitable that Bevin will be re-emboldened by a Trump presidency. Sadly, my students struggle to think long-term, because their basic needs are not being met. Poverty creates a bleak and endless horizon. The future fades from view before you can visualize it. My students cannot concentrate on the effects that deeper cuts to an already floundering school system might have on what could be their very bright futures, because those thoughts only exist in the long term, and they need help immediately — yesterday even.

Now eastern Kentuckians unwittingly face the prospect of Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has never worked as an educator, who did not attend public schools and whose children never attended public schools. Her beloved voucher system will hardly benefit struggling rural schools, because vouchers are meaningless in rural America due to sparse and densely packed schools. Martin County parents can hardly use an education voucher to send their children to a better high school. How could they when they don’t even have one to choose from?

By Shawna Kay Rodenberg

Shawna Kay Rodenberg is the author of "Kin: A Memoir," out now from Bloomsbury. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and her reviews and essays have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, and Elle. In 2016, Shawna was awarded the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, the largest monetary award given to an Appalachian writer, and in 2017 she was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. A registered nurse, community college English instructor, mother of five, and grandmother of two, she lives on a hobby goat farm in southern Indiana.

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