Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU Michigan, discusses a writing sample Thursday during a news conference on the group’s “right to read” lawsuit on behalf of students at Highland Park schools. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Detroit — Comparing conditions in Highland Park schools to segregation in the Deep South in the 1930s, the ACLU of Michigan filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against the district and the state.
The group alleges both failed to ensure students are reading at grade level, as mandated by state law and the U.S. Constitution. Three-quarters of students lack basic literacy skills to meet grade level, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mark Rosenbaum, a University of Michigan Law School professor and ACLU cooperating attorney, called the situation "severe and heartbreaking."
"The Highland Park School District leaves every child behind in its separate and oh, so unequal schools," Rosenbaum said during a press conference at the organization's Woodward Avenue headquarters.
"These children have no educational opportunities, and it's as if they were living in an impoverished Third World country."
The lawsuit was filed in Wayne County Circuit Court on behalf of eight Highland Park students. But it could have represented any number of state schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent, said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. The group looked at schools in River Rouge, Pontiac and other districts. The Highland Park schools represent the "canary in the coal mine," she said.
"Highland Park stood out because, not only the conditions, but the parents were interested in talking to us and wanted our help, (and) the test scores," she said. "And the much more fundamental issue is: How is the state dealing with these schools?
"This is not about pro- or anti-charter (schools), it's not about funding, or pro- or anti-emergency managers. It is about the right guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and laws of this state."
The lawsuit cites a "right to read" provision in Michigan law that says, in part, "A pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade MEAP reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months."
Moss listed the lack of textbooks, disorganized student files and buildings in need of repair, among other issues facing the district. She said state law requires districts to provide remedial help to students who are not performing at grade level.
"It's too soon to tell" whether the group will bring suits against other districts, she added.
One parent, Michelle Johnson, who has five children in the district, said she has been waiting years for her children to become proficient in reading.
"I've got an 11th-grade daughter who was too ashamed to be here today because she's reading at a third-grade level," she said. "There's a No Child Left Behind law. But she's still left behind because she can't read."
Johnson, who said she attends all the school board meetings, has approached local and state officials for help, to no avail.
"I want my children to have the same highest level of education as Gov. Rick Snyder's children have," she said
Snyder's spokeswoman said the Republican governor will not accept academic failure.
"Everything we have done, and are doing, is to ensure that the kids of Highland Park Schools get the education they need and deserve," Sara Wurfel said. "Clearly, the financial and academic problems at Highland Park schools are what led the governor to appoint an emergency manager."
Snyder named an emergency manager earlier this year to address the district's deficit, which is more than $11 million. Last month, officials announced plans to turn the district's three schools, with fewer than 1,000 students, over to a charter operator, starting this fall.
Joyce A. Parker, the district's emergency manager, said she has not had a chance to review the lawsuit. "I've only been (in the district) just over a month, so it's really difficult to comment because I wasn't involved to any extent," she said.
Highland Park school board secretary Robert Davis said he applauds the parents, students and ACLU for taking up the fight.
"Certainly (the students) deserve a quality education as much as students in West Bloomfield, Farmington or any other affluent district," he said.
Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said officials have not received a copy of the lawsuit so they can't comment.
The American Federation of Teachers Michigan president David Hecker said his group has been calling attention to the "unequal educational opportunities" in the district for years.
"The teachers and support staff of Highland Park are dedicated to ensuring a quality education for their students, and we call on the state of Michigan to uphold its obligation to provide high quality education to all students," he said.
Hecker said the plan to privatize the district appears to be based solely on finances, rather than education.
"There is no evidence that simply turning struggling schools over to charter management companies will enhance student learning," he said. "A bolder approach to transforming Highland Park schools would require adequate funding, collaboration and community engagement, and research-based school improvement strategies."
Bob Floden, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said the low scores show the district isn't succeeding with most students.
"But what the suit asks for — quality teachers, research-based curriculum — are the strategies the state is already promoting," he said. "Doing more in these directions is sensible. The question is how to pay for it?"
Moss said the money already is being spent in the district. "What is the quality of planning going into programs?" she asked.