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Opinion | We won a right to literacy in Detroit. Much work remains for equity.

As one of the seven families in the Detroit right-to-literacy lawsuit and campaign for educational equity, my son and I understand the magnitude of the landmark settlement. It was one of the most important decisions of the Michigan government in 2020.

To me and my son, the settlement means that now other students will not have to suffer and endure the negative effects of educational inequality in America. The settlement means that we are moving in the right direction for equity in education.  

But we are not there yet. There is more work to be done.

Detroit schoolchildren won a promise that must not be forgotten while everyone is consumed by the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. What must happen next is to deliver to the children what has been put in the settlement for them and their future. We must hold our Legislature, local and state superintendents, school board members, community stakeholders, and the community at large accountable. 

In the Michigan literacy settlement, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to send an additional $2.7 million to Detroit schools, and before the end of her first term in office, to ask the state Legislature to approve $94.4 million more for Detroit schools for literacy efforts.

What comes next for the kids? Will the state and all other stakeholders fulfill the promises made? Will Michigan give Detroit children what they need to be successful in life?

The settlement did not spell out what those programs and efforts would be. Our children deserve our best.  I may not have all the answers, but I hope for and envision the following:

  • The state must provide the funding for the school system to increase the amount spent on literacy.
  • New curricula are needed statewide to ensure every child can read, especially curricula inclusive of African-American literature and African-American history.  
  • Contemporary books and resources are needed (as we learned in the lawsuit that some Detroit classes have only a few books to share among all the students).
  • Close the digital divide, so all students have computers, Internet, and computer literacy.
  • Develop plans to redefine what education looks like for students post-COVID-19.
  • Make it mandatory in the state’s curriculum for students across Michigan to learn about the Detroit Literacy landmark case and decision.
  • Equity means that going forward, ensure that all schools in the state of Michigan look and operate the same for all students, fostering an inclusive environment and providing quality facilities and adequate staff. Osborn High School in Detroit is in 48205, considered the most dangerous ZIP Code in the state of Michigan, and was listed as the lowest performing school in the United States. Grosse Pointe High School, six miles up the street, looks very different from Osborn, from inside the classroom to outside the classroom. Very different means it has modern facilities, it’s clean and it has state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Reduce testing of DPSCD students. We are testing all of our students in all grades, five months out of a nine-month school year. Standardized test scores are often tied to important outcomes, such as graduation and school funding. Such high-stakes testing can place undue stress on students and affect their performance. Standardized tests fail to account for students who learn and demonstrate academic proficiency in different ways.
  • Make plans for the return of locker room attendants, librarians, conflict resolution, certified dance teachers, certified music/choir teacher.  Increase sports budgets. 
  • Going forward, the schools need to have plans to address trauma, mental health, and suicide among students in Michigan, and plans to reduce school bullying.
  • The pandemic has disrupted the education of special needs students. Going forward, plans to support these students must be in place. 
  • When all students return to school buildings, reduce crowding. Overcrowded classrooms, with general education and special education students having only one teacher, are unsafe environments for children to learn in. 

We won’t forget what Judge Eric L. Clay of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the opinion for the majority. He said that in America, children have a right to learn to read so they grow up to have “access to skills that are essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties, most importantly participation in our political system.”

The settlement should be treated and understood as a mandate to show progress I envision for Detroit’s next generation of children schools that offer a quality education. 

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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