Michigan Agrees to Settle Detroit Literacy Rights Case

A student gets water from a cooler in the hallway at Detroit’s Gardner Elementary School in 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT (CN) — Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday announced a settlement to resolve a lawsuit brought on behalf of children in Detroit that described slum-like conditions in some public school buildings and a general atmosphere that could not competently deliver education to students.

A 136-page class action lawsuit filed in 2016 against then-Governor Rick Snyder and the state board of education alleged the government had no interest in bettering the education of black school children from low-income households in the worst performing districts.

The lawsuit detailed deplorable conditions that led to cratering test scores based on achievement data compiled by the state, and separately, by the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit.

In one instance, a third-grade class allegedly only had access to picture books until a teacher purchased other books with her own money halfway through the school year. The classrooms were routinely overcrowded due to a lack of qualified teachers, according to the complaint.

In addition, the plaintiffs alleged, the playground of one elementary school is so poorly maintained that children injure themselves and tear their clothing on jagged edges on grounds strewn with spent bullets, used condoms and dead vermin.

The lawsuit was initially dismissed by U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III, a George W. Bush appointee, who ruled that while state officials were proper parties to the suit, access to literacy is not a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

But a 2-1 majority of the Sixth Circuit reinstated the case last month, finding that a “basic minimum education” is a constitutional right. U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote that because the Michigan Board of Education maintains control over all public education in the state, its current lack of day-to-day control over the district in question does not exclude it from liability.

The importance of education as a “prerequisite to the exercise of political power,” Clay wrote, requires that access to literacy be guaranteed.

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Murphy, a Donald Trump appointee, dissented and said federal judges do not have “the power to oversee Detroit’s schools in the name of the United States Constitution.” He wrote “this positive right to a minimum education will jumble our separation of powers.”

On Thursday, Governor Whitmer vowed the substandard educational conditions would improve in an announcement on the settlement.

“I have always said that every student, no matter where they come from, has a birthright to a quality public education. Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read – obstacles they never should have faced,” she said. “Today’s settlement is a good start, but there’s more work to do to create paths to opportunity for our children.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the settlement a real step forward for Detroit children.”

“The city of Detroit strongly supported this litigation as an amicus because literacy is a right that every child should have the opportunity to attain,” Duggan said. “We are very supportive of the governor’s actions today in committing to ensuring that every child in Detroit has a fair opportunity to learn how to read and write.” 

Under the settlement, Whitmer agreed to propose legislation during her first term that would provide Detroit Public School Community District with at least $94 million of funding for literacy-related programs and initiatives. The state also agreed to pay $280,000 to be shared among the seven student plaintiffs to access a high-quality literacy program or otherwise further their education.

Whitmer will also request the Michigan Department of Education advise school districts throughout the state as to how they might use evidence-based literacy strategies, initiatives and programs to improve access to literacy and reading proficiency, with special attention to reducing class, racial and ethnic disparities. She will receive recommendations from two Detroit-based tasks forces created to ensure students succeed.

Evan Caminker, a law professor and former dean at the University of Michigan Law School who served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs, applauded the settlement and last month’s ruling.  

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is groundbreaking, being the first to recognize a right of access to literacy,” he said. “Hopefully this decision and settlement will help shine a light on the horrible conditions to which schoolchildren are subject on a daily basis.”   

Michael Addonizio, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the settlement funds might be difficult to obtain.

“While the judicial decision is pathbreaking, any significant revenue increase for Detroit schools in the short term will require legislative approval. That won’t be easy,” he said.

Addonizio also feels the settlement might not reach far enough to every needy child in the region.

“This ruling applies to all public schools in Michigan and the other states in the Sixth Circuit. The conditions suffered by the plaintiffs in Detroit can probably also be found in Flint, Benton Harbor and other districts in Michigan,” he said. “The problem is systemic and needs a broad-based remedy. Do we as a state have the political will to respond?”

With a recession looming due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Addonizio also thinks the settlement funds might not be enough.

“The decision is coming down as our economy is in a deep recession. Across-th-board cuts in state school aid could more than offset any short-term resources provided to [Detroit Public Schools] by the settlement agreement. Again, any lasting remedy for Michigan public schools like those involved in this lawsuit will require bipartisan political leadership,” he said.

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