The Right to Read: Are Detroit Students Entitled to Life, Liberty an the Pursuit of Literacy?

Jammaria Hall, former DPS student and one of the lawsuit plaintiffs who has said he was cheated of his education

 

How many words are needed to express what you’ve experienced in Detroit’s public schools? Jamarria Hall, 19, talks about his own history with laser-beam precision. The crumbling system was “diminishing,” he says, making him less than what he might have been in an environment that actually let his curiosities roam and his intellect flourish.

The system’s deterioration has been well-documented. From widespread maintenance issues that will soon eclipse $1 billion to dramatic teacher shortages, generations of students have been forced to do their best under appalling conditions.

Now 19, Hall enrolled in a Florida community college after graduating from Osborne High School in 2017. When we speak, however, he returns to this feeling — that something precious was stolen from him and his classmates — again and again, as if drawn to it by gravity. “I know I’ve lost four years of education being at Osborn and being in the [Detroit public] school system,” he says. “I know that is not my fault.” 

Hall’s feeling of urgency is palpable and rightfully so. The “Right to Literacy” case that brought his all too common journey to public attention a few years ago that was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge, is now going before an appeals court in Cincinnati this week.

Filed on behalf of Hall and a group of other DPS students, attorney Mark Rosenbaum makes a straightforward argument: under 11 plus years of management, the State of Michigan acted as a neglectful tyrant, seizing control of Detroit’s public schools while allowing both its physical and educational quality to decay. By doing so, the attorney argues, the state violated students’ constitutional right to be able to learn to read. The idea is pretty simple: while the constitution doesn’t say so explicitly, the right to read is an obvious linchpin of every other constitutional right. Without it, it is practically impossible to fully participate in the democratic process.

Under the then-Republican administration of Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette basically called this nonsense, arguing that, “There is no fundamental right to literacy.” Michigan’s constitution, they insisted, only requires that the Legislature provide “a system of free public schools,” leaving everything else “to the local school districts.”

It’s important to be painfully clear here.

This boils down to an argument that the state only has to provide the skeleton of a school system, regardless of whether that system is eating itself from the inside out as a result of inadequate resources and funding. Demanding that the state intervene any further, they argued, would “destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.” And in a incredible display of open contempt for poor and working-class black Detroiters, the state even pointed to “parental involvement (or lack thereof)” and “intellectual limitations” as possible explanations for why students fail to learn in buildings that are literally crumbling around them.

In his 2018 decision, Judge Stephen J. Murphy III wrote that the alleged conditions were “devastating.” Yet he still dismissed the case on the grounds that “the Due Process Clause does not require a state to provide access to minimally adequate education.”

Still, outraged Detroiters still saw a narrow path to victory. This was the summer of 2018 and Gretchen Whitmer would soon clinch the Democratic Party nomination for governor. She had spoken forcefully about the trial while campaigning, arguing that  “Despite what the federal court said, despite what Bill Schuette and Gov. Snyder say, I believe every child in this state has a constitutional right to literacy,” Whitmer said. “I believe you have a birthright to a good education. And it includes having a great teacher in your classroom, having facilities that promote the kind of learning that today’s day and age requires. All of these are pieces of that.” Within a year, her administration would pivot, laying out a maze of an argument to reach the same conclusion as Snyder. The same conclusion she campaigned against.

“It’s really sad…for her to take the ‘no’ position just like Rick Snyder,” Jamarria says. “Because she really ran her campaign on [the right to literacy.] It was one of the biggest aspects that she was elected for.”

This has put the governor in an awkward position. On the one hand, Whitmer states that “every child in this state has a birthright to a phenomenal public education.” On the other hand, the state will nonetheless argue in court that “access to literacy’ is not a fundamental right” and that the state has given back control to local government and boosted funding, and as such is no longer the proper target for the suit.

Gov. Whitmer visits second graders

The problem with this argument, Rosenbaum says, is that “it doesn’t make any sense.” The state still wields enormous control, especially over the district’s budget and its ability to raise capital. On top of this, he adds, the state of Michigan “destroyed” Detroit’s education infrastructure “and then left the school system in ruins.”

This is obvious to anyone who has looked at recent Michigan history. It was within the last decade, after all, that roughly 50 percent of Michigan’s black residents were under Emergency Management, an arrangement in which the state holds near-absolute power over a city or school district. Over the course of eleven years, the state held DPS in its chokehold. And it was nearly fatal.

As the Metro Times reports, the district had a $93 million surplus before the state stepped in, along with “healthy enrollment and test scores that were on the rise.” But that progress began to evaporate with “the state’s ‘rescue’ in 1999.” Enrollment “plummeted by nearly 50 percent, the number of schools [were] cut in half,” and deficits exploded “to tens of millions…sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars.”

To this day, both the district and the city itself remain under the supervision of a Financial Review Commission, which is mostly staffed up by suits who weren’t elected to those roles. It’s hard to see how taking a sledgehammer to local democracy like this upholds the “tradition of democratic control of schools.”

But more importantly, Rosenbaum says, “You can’t compel a child to go to school and then say we don’t have to provide the means to teach you how to read.” The basic moral and legal question is will Michigan will step up and acknowledge that it damaged our educational process when it managed DPS.

If not the state, who bears responsibility for the fact that Jamarria and so many others have had to endure year after after in rotten conditions where, as he describes, rats run through classrooms and hallways, windows are barred prison-style, and ceilings constantly leak? Where classrooms are excruciatingly hot in the summer and devastatingly cold in the winter? Where the gyms are moldy and your playground, as the Washington Post reports, might be one where “a geyser of searing hot steam explodes out of the ground”? 

With the Appeals Court getting ready to meet, the governor’s reversal of her previous statements on the campaign trail stirred several strong responses from others in positions of power.

After being incorrectly added to a brief in support of the state’s position, Board of Education member Pamela L. Pugh wrote a stinging rebuke of that position: “Anything short of Governor Whitmer and state education officials completely separating from former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s arguments, and taking responsibility for our children of color being granted the equal right to critical learning conditions that are afforded to students in other school districts is simply unacceptable.”

And State Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a powerful brief of her own on behalf of the students, arguing that “a minimally adequate education is a necessary vehicle to repair decades of race discrimination and to empower individuals to rise above circumstances that have been foisted on them through no fault of their own.”

In other words, the state’s most powerful law enforcement officer has confirmed what Jamarria knew all along: that generations of Detroit Public Schools students have been robbed of the high-quality education they deserve. That the state is obviously responsible for the system’s decimation. And that it is plainly silly, not to mention dishonest and cruel, to argue that the state is somehow not responsible for repairing the enormous damage it created.

“There’s some people that really can’t control” where they end up in life, Jamarria says, “because of where they were born, or because of what other complications they have going on in their life…We still don’t have equal opportunity. We’re still ten steps behind. We’re still in the dust…but it doesn’t have to be this way.”

 

 

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