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Michigan settles Detroit schools lawsuit, acknowledges a right to literacy

Jamarria

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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