Court Rules Detroit Students Have a Right to Literacy: Many calling on Gov. Whitmer to settle the case
Detroit has been hit with blow after blow as of late as the effects of COVID-19 have been far-reaching. We have some of the highest number of cases in the state, many small businesses have been ravaged and we are facing a nearly $350 million budget deficit, all due to the pandemic.
Let’s face it, at a time where there is so much uncertainty the city really could use a “win” right now.
Well, that’s exactly what we got on April 23 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court ruled that students in the low-performing Detroit Public school system have a right to expect to learn to read and write, thus reversing the previous 2018 decision that said the state was not responsible.
This has been a hard-fought battle for the seven students that filed this class-action suit against the state of Michigan in 2016. The students argued that education is a basic right which they had been denied. The lawyers filing the suit—from the pro bono Los Angeles firm Public Counsel—contended that the students (who attended five of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools) received an education so inferior and underfunded that it’s as if they’re not attending school at all. The lawsuit sought to hold state officials responsible for system-wide failures that the plaintiffs said have deprived Detroit children of their right to literacy, left many classrooms and buildings in terrible condition, and left teachers without the resources they needed to do their jobs.
The ruling validated the concerns of many students, and Jamarria Hall, 20, one of the student plaintiffs, feels they are on the path to reconciliation. Hall graduated at the top of his class at Osborn High School but when he moved out of state to attend community college, he learned very quickly that he was not prepared. His struggles caused him to be put on academic probation and he now has to work with a tutor. He chose to be a part of the lawsuit because he wanted the next generation of Detroit children “to have a chance,” he said. “This is our future. These are our voters.”
When the case was first filed it listed then-Republican Governor Rick Snyder as the defendant as the state was “the ultimate legal authority over Detroit schools in 2016,” since state-appointed emergency managers ran the district “from 2009 through Dec. 31, 2016.” This followed an earlier five-year stretch of emergency management from 1999 to 2004. As state attorney Ray Howd had to be reminded that Michigan held unmatched power over the district for the better part of two decades.
The case was inherited by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer who, while campaigning for her party’s nomination for governor, spoke movingly about the lawsuit stating, “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.” However, the mood seemingly changed; Whitmer received criticism for back-tracking and ultimately reaching the same conclusion she campaigned against.
Whitmer has not said whether she will appeal the ruling; however, a spokesman said that her office was reviewing the court’s decision. “The governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read,” he said.
It’s important to remember what this means for the lives of actual people. “Denial of access to literacy,” said attorney Mark Rosenbaum, who represents the student plaintiffs, has consistently been a way “to subordinate or disenfranchise communities of color, going all the way back to when it was a crime to teach children how to read, going all the way back to literacy tests.” In other words, to say that there is no right to literacy is to uphold a heinous crime — one that uses gaps in the constitution to smuggle in policies that exploit and devastate the country’s segregated black communities. Communities like ones all across Detroit.
The case certainly blurred lines as lawyers in the Michigan Attorney General’s office had to defend the state against the students’ concerns, while Dana Nessel, the Democratic Attorney General, moved to file a brief on behalf of the students. The brief was not accepted due to a conflict of interest, however Nessel is still pleased with the outcome.
“I am overjoyed with the Court’s decision recognizing that the Constitution guarantees a right to a basic minimum education,” Nessel said in a statement. “This recognition is the only way to guarantee that students who are required to attend school will actually have a teacher, adequate educational materials, and a physical environment that does not subject them to filth, unsafe drinking water, and physical danger.”
Detroit school district leaders are urging Gov. Whitmer to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs.
The State has until May 15 to file for further review but many are calling on Whitmer to “do the right thing” and settle the case.
“Reaching a settlement is not complicated,” said Rosenbaum. “The children of Detroit desperately need what their affluent counterparts take for granted: for starters, qualified teachers, literacy interventionists, curricular materials geared to literacy achievement, smaller teacher-student ratios.”
“We won’t ask for anything that Governor Whitmer has not called for as part of a basic, minimal education preparing Detroit children for the opportunity to better their circumstances and become meaningful participants in our democracy,” he continued. “As Judge Clay noted, we can’t call ourselves a real democracy until every child has their shot.”
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Board President Iris Taylor said in a letter to the governor:
“We respect your advocacy for traditional public education throughout the state and in Detroit. However, we encourage you to stop listening to attorneys and rely on your instincts.”
“The decision shines a bright light on the State’s failures toward the school district’s children and employees, mainly teachers,” the letter from Vitti and Taylor continues. “Despite the district’s improvement under an elected empowered school board and appointed superintendent, the legacy of state control will negatively impact children and the community for years. Accountability and justice are required.”
A group of black leaders is also calling on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to “claim her place in history” by negotiating a settlement in the landmark Detroit Right to Literacy case.
National civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Martin Luther King III and Yvonne M. White, president of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP, joined Dr. Pamela L. Pugh to call on Gov. Whitmer to settle the case of Gary B. v. Whitmer and ensure equal access to education for black children in Michigan. Dr. Pugh, the vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, who is both a defendant and an appellee in the case, wrote to the governor urging settlement on Friday.
Crump, who represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and many other victims of racial injustice, called this a seminal issue for the black community that will long be remembered by black voters in Michigan and throughout the country.
“This is the Brown v. Board of Education of our lifetimes – the chance to change the life trajectory of countless underprivileged black and brown children in Michigan,” Crump said. “This is Gov. Whitmer’s appointment with destiny. The next choice she makes will define her place in history.”
White of the Michigan NAACP said the ruling sets the stage for Gov. Whitmer to make a lasting mark on Michigan and “even the scales of justice for hundreds of thousands of children of color who don’t stand a chance of succeeding without a decent education.”
The next step in the litigation is up to Governor Whitmer. It’s time to move the case from the courtroom to the classroom and work to settle this quickly. Education is the great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or exceed society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and racial inequality. Governor Whitmer has publicly stated in the past that she supports the right to literacy and she campaigned that she would see the right realized if elected. Everyone who knows Detroit schools and champions the desire of the students to learn in order to achieve their potential should agree that this is the time to provide them that opportunity.
As Judge Eric L. Clay wrote in his decision: When “a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy.”
Governor Whitmer, it’s time to fix the damn schools.