Michigan Agrees to Aid Detroit Schools With $100 Million in Dedicated Literacy Funds After Courts Agree With New Legal Theory That Students Have Right to Read
Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced on Thursday that Michigan has reached a proposed settlement in a lawsuit that would allocate approximately $100 million for literacy programs in Detroit schools. The settlement also includes a small compensation for the seven student plaintiffs and the establishment of two task forces dedicated to improving the city’s schools. However, the settlement still needs approval from the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the case and support from lawmakers for certain provisions.
In recent days, numerous parents in Detroit have taken to their phones to urge Governor Gretchen Whitmer to settle the lawsuit. These parents, who are currently quarantined in COVID-19 hotspots, are experiencing one of the largest digital divides in the country. Using hashtags such as #RightToLiteracy and #settlethiscase, they have been tweeting at the governor and texting "READ313" (313 being the area code for the city) to a designated number that forwards their messages to her. They have also organized live Facebook town halls to explain how a settlement would halt the legal proceedings and establish an unprecedented constitutional guarantee for their children’s right to education.
These parents, many of whom are part of the grassroots advocacy network 482Forward, are urging Governor Whitmer to settle the lawsuit in order to negotiate improvements for their underperforming schools. Simultaneously, they hope that this settlement will solidify the recognition of children’s fundamental right to read in the eyes of the law. Governor Whitmer has until May 7 to respond.
Traditionally, federal courts have rejected the idea that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to education, although state constitutions may interpret it differently. However, public interest lawyers have recently advanced a new legal theory, arguing that literacy is so essential to societal participation that it should be considered a constitutional right.
In April, two judges from the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, part of a three-judge panel, agreed with the young Detroit plaintiffs and issued an unprecedented ruling that recognized a constitutional right to literacy. They also acknowledged that children of color have been systematically denied this right. United States Circuit Judge Eric Clay, one of the judges on the panel, emphasized the historical relationship between education, economic power, and political power, particularly highlighting the discriminatory practices against African Americans in the past. He argued that while laws prohibiting the education of black children no longer exist, the consequences of illiteracy still impede their participation in society.
The lawsuit was filed in 2016 in a federal district court in Detroit on behalf of students attending both district and charter schools. The students claimed that the state had violated their rights by implementing policies and conditions that deprived the city’s schools of adequate resources, qualified teachers, and basic materials like textbooks. The case was initially dismissed in 2018 by the court, which ruled that education, though incredibly important, was not a constitutional right. However, most observers anticipated the appellate court to uphold this decision during arguments held last fall.
A spokesperson from the governor’s office has mentioned that Governor Whitmer is currently reviewing the decision. It is important to note that she has not disputed the merits of the case thus far. Due to this, it is unlikely that there will be an appeal to the Supreme Court. The initial case was filed against a Republican administration. During the campaign, Governor Whitmer, who is a Democrat and was elected in 2018, expressed her support for the right to literacy. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that either side wants the Supreme Court to intervene as it could set a precedent that prevents future lawsuits based on the same legal theory.
If the full Circuit Court does not choose to reconsider the issue, the opinion will remain. However, if they do decide to rehear it, it would likely be because the appellate court feels that the three-judge panel made a significant error. In such a scenario, a rehearing could potentially overturn the previous decision.
Instead of going through a trial where the governor and state attorney general would have to defend the current state of affairs, the parents are seeking a plan for their children. They are requesting in the settlement that their students receive the education they deserve. The director of 482Forward, Wytrice Harris, who is also a mother of two Detroit Public Schools alumni, emphasizes that this case is about racial and economic justice for Detroit students. The settlement should focus on essential aspects such as adequate facilities, well-compensated teachers, small class sizes, and well-equipped classrooms.
Lastly, it is important to highlight the dire state of public education in Detroit, which is why the settlement is being urged. Students and community members have faced significant challenges, including uncertified teachers, unequal resources and buildings, and school closures resulting in displacement. Therefore, it is crucial for Governor Whitmer to support the right to literacy case and collaborate with students, families, educators, and community members to fight for educational justice.
In particular, Osborn High School on the east side of the city exemplifies the conditions that demand urgent attention. Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit attended specialty high schools within the same building, which has since been merged into one program. The math proficiency rate for high school juniors at Osborn Academy of Mathematics was less than 4 percent in the year prior to the lawsuit. At Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy, no students passed the grade-level math exam. State reading exams had similarly low passing rates, with less than 2 percent of Osborn Math students and 5 percent of Osborn Evergreen students meeting proficiency standards. Not a single student from either school was deemed college-ready in math, and only 5 percent and 2 percent respectively were proficient in reading, according to the ACT college admissions test.
Due to the high number of unfilled teaching positions and frequent teacher absenteeism, students at Osborn experienced substitute teachers in two classes each day. The lack of available staff sometimes forced students to be unsupervised in classrooms or the gym. The complaint also highlighted the absence of textbooks for certain science classes at Osborn Mathematics, which resulted in teachers having to rely on relevant sections from the biology textbook.
The building itself requires at least $28 million in repairs, ranging from broken windows to an erratic heating system that leads to some students having to wear winter coats in class, while others suffer from heatstroke.
Roquesha Oneal, a former special education student at Osborn who later became a parent advocate, withdrew her two other children from the school due to the inability to provide proper special education services. She emphasized the deep-rooted need for literacy, stating that without literacy skills, parents are unable to understand and assert their rights. She knows numerous individuals who attended Osborn and currently struggle to make ends meet due to their lack of education.
Efforts to address the decline in education within the city have been repeatedly hindered by lawmakers and lobbyists, despite bipartisan and influential attempts. Back in 2016, when there was a major push to reform Detroit’s K-12 education system, Betsy DeVos, a prominent lobbyist in Michigan’s education policy at the time, suggested simply shutting down the district.
Increasingly frustrated with the inadequate political responses to the widening achievement gaps in Michigan and other places, education advocates have turned to the courts for solutions. However, they have faced significant challenges, despite the importance of literacy in legal history.
Following the Civil War, Congress mandated that former Confederate states provide accessible public education to African Americans, who also gained the right to vote. To be readmitted to the Union, Southern states had to amend their constitutions to recognize the right to education as essential for democratic participation. The remaining states followed suit.
However, lawsuits brought forth by states demanding quality education have primarily focused on school funding and integration, often leading to failure due to the low standards set by few constitutions. Public Counsel, the organization that filed the lawsuit in Detroit, is just one of several public interest law firms using new theories that connect literacy and citizenship to push these cases.
Earlier this year, Public Counsel reached a settlement in a literacy case against California in a state court. The settlement aimed to encourage districts to implement evidence-backed strategies for improving reading levels, as the state had identified but not implemented these practices prior to the lawsuit.
According to Kristine Bowman, a professor of law and education at Michigan State University, the settlement in California could serve as a model for Governor Whitmer and the people of Detroit. If the case is settled, the right to literacy will become law in four states within the jurisdiction of the circuit court: Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. Additionally, the ruling can be used as persuasive precedent in other similar cases.
Bowman emphasizes that scholars have long discussed what a right to education should entail, and this decision will raise numerous questions moving forward.
Mark Rosenbaum, the director of the Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law program, has led the litigation on literacy. He hopes that the Detroit decision marks the beginning of a new era of legal advocacy for education rights. He questions why, in 2020, there is still a need to go to court to establish a child’s right to a classroom, teacher, and books. His hope is that no future case will have facts similar to this one.
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