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Class Says Michigan Is Failing Detroit Students

DETROIT (CN) - A federal class action claims the state of Michigan is violating the constitutional rights of students in Detroit's public schools by failing to provide them with adequate instruction or tools to acquire basic literacy.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Michigan, parents and students of the city's public school system say that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the state's board of education have shown a complete lack of interest in Detroit's five lowest performing schools and the black children from low-income families who have to attend them.

This disinterest and the resulting lack of investment in the troubled schools is denying young black students "the most basic building block of education," the complaint says.

The plaintiffs claim that through policy and in practice, Michigan persistently and deliberately deprives disadvantaged black students of a "fighting chance" to succeed, by failing to provide them with adequate, up-to-date instructional materials, appropriately-trained teaching staff, and safe school buildings.

The 136-page complaint cites student achievement data compiled by the state, and separately, by the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, that show literacy proficiency rates in Detroit's worst performing schools hovers near zero in nearly all subject area.

Michigan's statewide accountability system rates these five schools one, two, four, and six, the complaint says, while Excellent Schools Detroit has assigned the schools represented in the lawsuit grades "F" and "D."

In one of the five schools, the plaintiffs claim, third-graders have a proficiency score of 4.2% on Michigan's 2015-16 English assessment test, compared with 46.0% of third-graders statewide.

In the same school, the complaint alleges, the only books third-graders had access to were picture books—until their teacher bought other books with money out of her own pocket—halfway through the school year, the complaint says.

Similarly, at a charter school within the district, only 9.5% of third-grade students scored proficient in English, as compared to 46.0% of third-graders statewide, the complaint adds.

The plaintiffs say that in addition to being denied proper instructional materials, students are also forced to try to learn in grossly over-crowded classrooms due to the low-performing schools having an insufficient number of teachers.

In some cases, they say, these classes are left in the hands of people who do not have the minimum state requirements to teach including an eighth-grader who was pressed into teaching seventh and eighth grade math classes for a month because no adult teacher was available.

Photographs incorporated into the complaint show buckets placed in school hallways to catch rainwater, evidence of rodent and insect infestations, and non-functioning drinking fountains, and toilets sealed up with plastic trash bags.

According to the complaint, many school restrooms lack soap and toilet paper.

The dire conditions described in the complaint include classrooms and school buildings that are inadequately heated during the winter and are too hot in the spring and early fall because of malfunctioning air conditioning.

In addition, the plaintiffs say, the playground of one elementary school is so poorly maintained and secured that the children who are forced use it routinely injure themselves and tear their clothing on jagged edges on the grounds, and play on grounds strewn with spent bullets, used condoms and sex toys, and dead vermin.

At a news conference on Wednesday, plaintiff attorney Mark Rosenbaum said, "For the last 15 years, the state has run the Detroit schools, has run them into the ground."

"Literacy," Rosenbaum says, "is the cornerstone of all education; it is the cornerstone of our democracy. Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship."

Co-counsel Kathryn Eidman said attorneys are focusing on Detroit because it has the lowest proficiency rates of any large urban school district in the U.S.

The state took over management of the Detroit Public Schools, now official

Since 2009, a series of emergency managers, first appointed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and then, by Gov. Snyder, have overseen the day-to-day operation of the district.

Despite the oversight, however, the school district's financial problems have worsened, prompting state lawmakers to pass a sweeping $617 million package in June intended to once again prop the school system up and fund a series of reforms.

The plaintiffs want the state to take the additional step of monitoring "conditions that deny access to literacy," and provide appropriate intervention and support.

John Austin, president of the Michigan Department of Education, told the Detroit Free Press he believes that board should not have been named as a defendant in the case because it has repeatedly sought increased education funding from the governor and the state Legislature.

The board, Austin explained, has no power to approve such funding.

"It's the Legislature that holds the purse strings, and the governor who proposes budgets," he said.

A spokesman for Gov. Snyder declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

In addition to Rosenbaum and Eidman and their legal team from the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the plaintiffs are represented by Michael Kelley, of Sidley Austin LLP in Los Angeles; Jennifer Wheeler, of Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago; Bruce Miller, of Miller Cohen PLC in Detroit; Evan Caminker, of the University of Michigan Law School; and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

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