State says literacy not a right in Detroit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Attorneys for Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials say no fundamental right to literacy exists for Detroit schoolchildren who are suing the state over the quality of their education.

The lawyers are asking a federal judge to reject what they call an “attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”

Timothy J. Haynes, an assistant attorney general, made those statements in a 62-page motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against Snyder and state education leaders in September by seven Detroit children who allege decades of state disinvestment and deliberate indifference to the city schools have denied them access to literacy.

The motion was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Haynes says claims laid out by plaintiffs — including deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures — go far beyond mere access to education.

“(They) ask this court to serve as a ‘super’ Legislature tasked with determining and dictating educational policy in every school district and school building throughout the United States where an illiterate child may be found,” the response says.

“Such a path would effectively supersede democratic control by voters and the judgment of parents, allowing state and federal courts to peer over the shoulders of teachers and administrators and substitute court judgment for the professional judgment of educators.”

The Detroit schoolchildren, represented by a California public interest law firm, sued state officials Sept. 13 in what legal observers say is an unprecedented attempt to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right.

The suit 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.

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.

The state is asking U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III to dismiss the case, saying the U.S. Supreme Court and Michigan courts do recognize the importance of literacy, but reject claims it is a legal right.

“But as important as literacy may be, the United States Supreme Court has unambiguously rejected the claim that public education is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution,” Haynes says.

In his motion, Haynes denies the state of Michigan has been responsible for the operation of the schools in Detroit since 1999, which is alleged in the lawsuit, and says the state does not operate or control public schools in Detroit.

“Contrary to plaintiffs’ assertions, the ‘state’ never ran any of the schools, although emergency managers have been appointed to supplant local authority, where necessary,” Haynes says.

DPS has been under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager since 2009. Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes is scheduled to step down on Dec. 31 and a newly elected Board of Education begins its work on Jan. 1.

Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney for Public Counsel, which is representing the schoolchildren, said the state’s response was disappointing and did not come as a surprise.

What Eidmann says she found interesting was: the 62-page motion ignored the grim reality Detroit schoolchildren face every day inside classrooms.

“There is no mention about the fact that hardly any of the students have access to teachers or books. These are schools where no state officials or state lawyer would send their child,” she said.

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.

The plaintiffs are students at four of the lowest-performing schools at the Detroit Public School Community District: Hamilton Academy; Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody; Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology; and Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy.

One plaintiff is a former student at Experiencia Preparatory Academy, a privately operated charter school that closed in June.

The lawsuit is asking the court to order the state to provide relief that includes “appropriate, evidence-based literacy” instruction at all grade levels and to address physical school conditions that impair access to literacy.

Murphy is expected to hear motions from both Public Counsel and the state in February to decide whether the case moves forward.