Michigan settles Detroit schools lawsuit, acknowledges a right to literacy


“Today, I’m overwhelmed with joy for the opportunities this settlement opens up for students in Detroit," Jamarria Hall, a 2017 graduate of Osborn High School and a plaintiff in the case, said a news release. (Bridge file photo by Mike Wilkinson)

Michigan has settled a historic lawsuit that claimed the state had failed to provide basic educational opportunities to students in Detroit. 

Now for the hard part. 

As part of the settlement, announced Thursday, the state agreed to pay $3 million to seven student plaintiffs and the Detroit Public Schools Community District to fund school literacy programs. That money can be awarded without approval of the Legislature, Tiffany Brown, spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said.

But the biggest portion of the settlement — a potential $94.4 million for literacy efforts in Detroit schools — might never make it out of Lansing.

The settlement requires the Democratic governor to propose legislation that would provide that money to the biggest school district in the state. But Whitmer can’t award the funds on her own. With the Legislature controlled by the GOP, which recently urged the state to continue to contest the lawsuit, and with Michigan facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic, that proposal could be a hard sell.

Still, the settlement was, at minimum, a huge symbolic victory for Detroit and its much-maligned school system, and an acknowledgement by state leaders that Michigan has failed the children of its largest city, which has recorded abysmal test scores within the past decade.

“Every student, no matter where they come from, has a birthright to a quality public education,” Whitmer said a news release announcing the terms of the settlement Thursday. “Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read — obstacles they never should have faced.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2016 by several Detroit students when Republican Rick Snyder was governor, argued that Michigan, which had taken emergency control of the Detroit district for years, allowed it to deteriorate so badly that there weren’t enough books, teachers and furniture; in effect, the suit argued, creating an atmosphere where learning to read was near impossible.

While there has been an uptick in standardized test scores in recent years, scores for Detroit Public Schools Community District students remain well below the state average. In the 2018-19 school year, 12 percent of Detroit third-grade students were proficient or better in English language arts, which includes reading. By comparison, 45 percent of students statewide were proficient or better.

Under the settlement, the Detroit school district will receive $2.72 million for literacy programs; the seven plaintiffs will share an additional $280,000.

The Detroit case has drawn nationwide attention from scholars, activists and economists who saw the potential of a case that could expand federal constitutional rights to, in effect, include a right to a minimal level of education that includes the ability to read.

The settlement comes less than a month after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the Detroit students. In recent days, Democratic state Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Democrat-controlled State Board of Education appealed to Whitmer to settle the case, rather than continue to fight it in court.

The Republican-led Legislature recently voted to ask the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the ruling, arguing that the management of K-12 education is a job of the state, not the federal judiciary.

Reached Thursday after the terms of the settlement were released, spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, declined to comment, saying their offices had not yet reviewed the settlement. 

Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, chair of the Senate K-12 Appropriations subcommittee, did not immediately return a call for comment.

“Today, I’m overwhelmed with joy for the opportunities this settlement opens up for students in Detroit," Jamarria Hall, a 2017 graduate of Osborn High School and part of the class of plaintiffs in the case, said a news release. 

"Parents and students knew we wanted a better education, and now to really be heard for the first time means everything.” 

In addition to the financial settlement, the state agreed to create two task forces to offer recommendations to the governor to improve literacy in Detroit:

  • The Detroit Literacy Equity Task Force will be created outside of state government to conduct yearly evaluations around literacy in Detroit and provide state-level policy recommendations to the governor. This task force is to include students, parents, literacy experts, teachers, a paraprofessional and other community members.
  • The Detroit Educational Policy Committee will focus on the stability and quality of the overall educational ecosystem in Detroit; the accessibility of a quality school to all children in Detroit; and school improvement, facilities, teaching and educational materials. The governor is to create this advisory body or recognize an already existing body to perform this function.  

Lead attorney for the Detroit students, Mark Rosenbaum, said the settlement shows the state is “acknowledging that no child should be denied his or her right to fully pursue the American Dream based on the color of their skin or their family’s income.

“While there is much work left to be done, today’s settlement paves the way for the State of Michigan to fulfill its moral obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to children that have been denied a fair shake for far too long,” Rosenbaum said. “This victory is their victory, and in this moment the children and their families and the teachers of Detroit have taught a nation what it means to fight for justice and win.”

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Thu, 05/14/2020 - 10:29am

This may have all the makings of a law of unintended consequences. And just what was the settlement?

Jim Wittebols
Thu, 05/14/2020 - 11:27am

Where are the details on this agreement?

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 11:53am

I know that some school districts that receive far less money form the state per student scored higher on tests than Detroit did. Why is that?

Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/14/2020 - 8:05pm

Gov. Karen expects to pay for this "settlement"...how?

Michigan is about $3-billion in the red, so what will she cut?

Bob Balwinski
Fri, 05/15/2020 - 11:08am

Kevin, see opinion piece in today's Detroit Free Press and the related article on this settlement if you want the facts.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 05/15/2020 - 9:34pm

Mr. Balwinski,

I caught the details from another source previously, which is why I asked the question. But I take it that you are referring to Kaffer's piece this morning?

The one that had this:

"The centerpiece of the settlement is Whitmer's agreement to ask legislators for an additional $94 million to fund evidence-based literacy programs and initiatives in Detroit. Whitmer also agreed to propose legislation to allow DPSCD to borrow money; because of a 2016 reform deal, the district is currently barred from borrowing."

We're both smart enough to know that's NOT going to happen with a $3-billion (so far) hole in your budget.


And next year's budget isn't looking any better.

The governor knew these numbers when she signed off on this settlement. She also knows full well that the Michigan Legislature will NEVER sign off on such an appropriation.

Which is why I am of the strong opinion that was her intention all along; to make them a patsy when that money DOESN'T materialize.

Procrastinating has been one of the governor's leadership characteristics.

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 11:18pm

We hear all about the protesters in Lansing of late, but here is where the ultimate 'protestors' win.
These educational 'protesters' got their money and run, Detroit has been proven to have failed their students but they get the money from Lansing and have to do nothing [except create some meaningless jobs with no accountability], and the rest of Michigan is holding the proverbial 'bag' that the courts say they are to fill with money. And as for the current and future students, just like their predecessors they will simply fail to learn to read because nothing in the court ruling [or at least of what is reported] of changes in the learning process and the fulfilment of the student's role/responsibilities.

Fri, 05/15/2020 - 10:33am

The point in the lawsuit that you are missing is that the state had taken over Detroit Public Schools and had not provided basic necessities, such as rooms that did not leak water, textbooks for students (not to mention they are outdated), certified teachers in the classrooms, etc. The state failed and I am glad they are being held responsible.

Fri, 05/15/2020 - 10:06pm

I did read that in the article, but are you suggesting that it was only when the state took over the schools that all of the problems began, that all the students were learning to read at the required level, that there was no reason or rationale that the Detroit School district was not meeting or exceeding student performance expectations and the state usurped their role/responsibilities?
My best guess is that the lawyers narrowed the time frame for performance deficiency during to the time the state had taken responsibility because they could sue a party that could get [tax the rest of Michigan] more money for whatever settlement the lawyers could wheedle [a Democrat threw up her hands and 'said' lets get the rest of the state to give the lawyers, kids, and Detroit millions of dollars]. And there is nothing in the article that even suggest there will change in student learning, the only change will be a few wallets.
The state isn't being held responsible, not even the Governor at the time of the lawsuit, get off your 'high horse' and accept this was all about money because if nothing else changes except money going from one hand to another hand then it was all about the money.

As for books being out dated, how is a reading book out dated, how is an arithmetic book out dated? My do suspect the revisionist history being taught today is outdated, but I wonder how many kids learned enough from those books to go on to advanced learning. If any did we should be asking how and why they were able to and how we can take those lesson to others. You do realize that there was a whole generations that learn their reading from books such as 'Fun with Dick and Jane' and the people from those generations were the ones that created the computer technology and other science and engineering today's society is built on. What you seem unwilling to accept is the student's role/responsibilities in their learning process.

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 05/15/2020 - 10:24am

Why is it that these schools did not have enough books, desks, and qualified teachers? Is it the responsibility of the state? The effects of poverty on students' learning can not be mitigated by a few million dollars. We can spend the money on education or we can spend it on prisons, but I would suggest that people with an education and a job pay taxes.

Barry Visel
Fri, 05/15/2020 - 11:20am

The slippery slope just got a lot more grease. Good grief! I wonder what would happen if the students sued their parents for not moving them to better school districts? “Birth”right. Also, I’m still waiting for reporting which explains what section(s) of the US Constitution was used by the judges to uphold this lawsuit?

Fri, 05/15/2020 - 2:30pm

My spouse has worked as an educator in similar urban districts. The elephant in the room is the overwhelming number of disruptive students that control the education environment of other students. My spouse has been terrorized by students and families who simply do not want to learn or take responsibility for egregious student misbehavior. The majority of students make it a full time job to disrupt the classroom environment. Of course students will not be college ready if they do not take responsibility for their educations. DPS has high teacher turnover because no normal educator would put up with years of abuse at the hands of out of control students and families.

Sat, 05/16/2020 - 3:57pm

It is disappointing that there aren't any articles or conversations about the learning process, about what is necessary to provide an environment for effective, about what the process for learning is and what is necessary to ensure it is effective, about the student's role/responsibilities in their learning. I am concerned that too many people don't understand any of these and don't know what needs to be done.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 05/17/2020 - 9:04am

And you never will see any of that, Duane, especially in The Bridge.

Those points you brought up short-circuit the entire victimization narrative the media has been promoting continuously.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/17/2020 - 10:31am

How do you expect learning to take place in the circumstances described in the article and by Anonymous? There is some in spite of the circumstances. Students don't learn in a vacuum and the hours outside the classroom, specifically in the home, have more effect on learning than inside the classroom. And the suit is not about money. It is symbolic, since no money is likely to be allocated by this legislature. What it shows is how little the state of Michigan cares about these students.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 05/17/2020 - 11:41am

Sorry, Mr. Jordan, since DPSCD gets more money from all sources per student than most other districts through Michigan, while still spectacularly underperforming against them academically, the "how little outsiders care argument" doesn't hold very much water.

This lawsuit was all about shaking down Michigan Taxpayers, it had nothing to do with literacy.

And people who really do care about literacy should be insulted that the governor signed off on this scam.

Sun, 05/17/2020 - 8:32pm

If we never talk about the learning process how will people [students, parents, taxpayers, politicians] gain an understanding of what needs to be happening so they can support those who are delivering the learning process.
We hear so much about the importance of testing people for Covid 19 because people have been given a common understanding of how the virus spreads, the incubation period...they know what role/responsibilities they have in the process the virus takes and as they receive the results of the virus's spread it becomes easier to recognize who deserves their support and who needs to be redirected.
If people had a similar understand of the learning process and the various roles/responsibilities they could step up with similar support and redirection.