Lawyers representing Detroit schoolchildren filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Gov. Rick Snyder and state officials in what they're calling the country's first federal case that pushes for literacy as a right under the U.S. Constitution.
The complaint alleges that the state has denied Detroit students access to literacy — the most basic building block of education — through decades of "disinvestment ... and deliberate indifference."
It makes broad requests for remedies, like the implementation of evidence-based literacy programs, universal screening for literacy problems and a statewide accountability system in which the state "monitors conditions that deny access to literacy" and intervenes.
"For the last 15 years, the state has run the Detroit schools, has run them into the ground," Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with the California-based Public Counsel law firm, said at a news conference outside U.S. District Court in Detroit.
The lawsuit documents the low reading and math proficiency rates of Detroit students, as well as classes without teachers and outdated or insufficient classroom materials. It also notes poor conditions, including vermin and building problems, at some schools as recently as this month.
The seven plaintiffs are students listed by pseudonyms who attend some of the city's lowest-performing schools. Three are run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District: the Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, the Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy and the Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy. Two are charter schools: Hamilton Academy and Experiencia Preparatory Academy, which closed in June.
The suit seeks class action status on behalf of students who attend the schools, and those who formerly attended Experiencia.
Along with Snyder, the lawsuit names the state Board of Education, state school Superintendent Brian Whiston, David Behen, director of the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and Natasha Baker, the state school reform officer.
Snyder spokesman Ari Adler and Whiston said they can’t comment on pending litigation.
John Austin, president of the state board, said he doesn't think the body should have been sued because it has made recommendations to the governor and Legislature for increased education funding — and it, itself, has no power to approve such funding.
"It’s the Legislature that holds the purse strings, and the governor who proposes budgets," he said.
Since 2009, Detroit Public Schools, which in July was replaced by the Detroit Public Schools Community District, has been controlled by a series of emergency managers appointed first by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm and then by Snyder. The district's financial problems grew worse. State intervention first began years earlier, in 1999.
In June, lawmakers passed a sweeping $617 million legislative package to reform the district.
Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney for Public Counsel, said attorneys in the case decided to focus on Detroit because it has the lowest proficiency rates of any large urban school district in the country on national assessment tests.
The lawsuit says students in Detroit don't have adequate supplies, the textbooks are outdated, classrooms are overcrowded, and school buildings are dangerous.
"In one elementary school, the playground slide has jagged edges, causing students to tear their clothing and gash their skin, and students frequently find bullets, used condoms, sex toys, and dead vermin around the playground equipment," the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit also says students are taught by insufficient or unqualified staff, with many schools lacking properly trained teachers assigned to classes within their area of expertise.
Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, declined to comment on the case.
The press conference included current and former school staff members, as well as officials from the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. About two dozen people, including reporters, attended.
Renee Schenkman, a former teacher at Experiencia, said her job felt like a "veritable 'Hunger Games.'"
"Our ceiling leaked. In my second year, after multiple attempts to fix the problem, our building manager settled for putting up caution tape in the corner of my classroom," she said.
Student Jamarria Hall, 16, said Osborn Evergreen has broken water fountains and textbooks held together by tape. He said he heard about the lawsuit when attorneys approached students after a basketball game in mid-August, looking for people who would be interested in sharing their stories.
"I believe we’re getting failed as a whole ...," he said. "If you put a 12th grade reading book in front of us, a lot of us students probably wouldn't be able to read it.”
The lawsuit says by its actions and inactions,"the State of Michigan’s systemic, persistent, and deliberate failure to deliver instruction and tools essential for access to literacy in plaintiffs’ schools, which serve almost exclusively low-income children of color, deprives students of even a fighting chance."
The case brings claims under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.
It could be a difficult case conceptually, said Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University Law School.
"While I haven’t seen the complaint, I can understand the theory, and I think it will be a stretch to get the courts to say that the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses (of the 14th Amendment) impose the obligation on the state to bring about certain outcomes in education," he said.
The students are represented by the not-for-profit Public Counsel, which calls itself the largest pro bono law firm in the nation. According to its website, it works to protect the legal rights of disadvantaged children; represent immigrants who have been victims of crimes; and foster economic justice.
International business law firm Sidley Austin LLP, Michigan law firm Miller Cohen PLC, University of Michigan Law School Professor Evan Caminker and University of California, Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky are also involved.
This isn't the first legal battle over literacy. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a "right-to-read" lawsuit against the state on behalf of students in Highland Park schools. The complaint cited the state, not U.S., Constitution.
Two years later, Michigan Court of Appeals judges ruled against the ACLU, saying, in part that the state Constitution only requires that the Legislature provide for and finance public schools, leaving the delivery of education services to the local districts.
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)