Suit: Detroit schoolchildren denied right to literacy
Detroit — Seven Detroit schoolchildren, represented by a California public interest law firm, sued state officials Tuesday in what attorneys say is an unprecedented attempt to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right.
The suit, brought against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and several education officials, claims the state has functionally excluded Detroit children from the state’s educational system. It seeks class-action status and several guarantees of equal access to literacy, screening, intervention, a statewide accountability system and other measures.
“Instead of providing students with a meaningful education and literacy, the state simply provides buildings — many in serious disrepair — in which students pass days and then years with no opportunity to learn to read, write or comprehend,” states the 133-page complaint by the Los Angeles-based firm Public Counsel.
Attorneys representing the students say the filing highlights shocking problems in some Detroit schools and is the first of its kind in the nation that seeks to secure students’ legal right to literacy under the 14th Amendment. Specifically, it seeks to build on the notion of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that an educated citizenry is critical to a well-functioning society.
Evan Caminker, former dean of the University of Michigan Law school who is an attorney on the case, expects the filing to “bring a new focus and new lens to the question of literacy.”
Caminker said U.S. Supreme Court justices in Brown v. Board of Education made it clear that all schoolchildren require a minimally acceptable education.
“The court also made clear that the exclusion of any group of students from that opportunity stamps them with a feeling of inferiority that can reach deep into their hearts and minds and last with them for their lifetimes,” Caminker said.
The suit seeks class-action status on behalf of all children who attend school in Detroit and alleges students in the city are functionally excluded from Michigan’s statewide system of education.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, alleges that decades of state disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to the Detroit schools have denied schoolchildren access to the most basic building block of education: literacy.
DPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment, comparatively low test scores and spending scandals that have left students without needed supplies. A $617 million aid package approved by lawmakers this summer relieved the district of nearly a half-billion dollar debt and provided $150 million in startup funding for a new, debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District.
DPS had four emergency managers before March when Snyder installed Steven Rhodes, a retired federal judge.
“The lawsuit documents pervasive, shock-the-conscience conditions that deny children the opportunity to attain literacy, including lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures,” said Kathryn Eidmann, an attorney with Public Counsel. “One seventh- and eighth-grade classroom was taught for a month by an eighth-grade student.”
Snyder spokesman Ari Adler declined comment on the lawsuit. Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the district, said its legal department is in the process of reviewing the lawsuit.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston, also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, on Tuesday said: “We are concerned with the literacy levels of all children in MichiganSuit: Detroit schoolchildren denied right to literacy: