State board member says Detroit children 'robbed' of rights

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Detroit students, represented by a California public interest law firm, allege deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures.

Detroit — A state board of education member who is a named defendant in a lawsuit over literacy access in Detroit schools says she does not support the state's legal position to have the case dismissed and believes the students were "robbed" of their rights.

Pamela L. Pugh, vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, said Tuesday she has notified the office of the Michigan Attorney General's Office that she will not be taking or supporting the state's legal position made Friday in a brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals seeking a dismissal of a 2016 lawsuit filed by Detroit schoolchildren.

On Friday, attorneys for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer argued that because Detroit schools have been returned to local control the state should not be subject to a lawsuit from Detroit schoolchildren alleging deplorable building conditions and a lack of teachers and textbooks denied their right to access literacy. 

Pugh, D-Saginaw, who was elected the state board in 2018, said she believes special compensation is needed for Detroit Public Schools, now Detroit Public Schools Community District, because of state control of the district for almost 20 years.

"In my opinion, this robbed Detroit children of the basic right to literacy, a fundamental right which I believe should be determined to be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as well as other constitutional rights which require literacy skills," Pugh said.

Pugh said she is exploring the options available to her as a member of the Michigan Board of Education "to properly and procedurally address this matter."

Pugh said the case has caused her to "reflect deeply upon my beliefs, my values, and the very reason that I decided to run for the office of the State Board of Education."

"Anything short of Governor Whitmer and state education officials completely separating from former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s arguments, and taking responsibility for our children of color being granted the equal right to critical learning conditions that are afforded to students in other school districts is simply unacceptable," Pugh said.

Whiter said Tuesday she was surprised by Pugh's remarks.

"It was my understanding that Miss Pugh and the board was fully briefed and understood and supported the legal briefings," Whitmer said.

"I’ve always believed that every child in the state has a birthright to a great education. That’s why I wrote a budget that prioritizes education," Whitmer said.

Attorney General Dana Nessel was not immediately available for comment. 

Legal observers have said the lawsuit is an unprecedented attempt to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right under the 14th Amendment.

The students, represented by a California public interest law firm, alleged deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures.

Pugh cited statements from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his call for people "to think for ourselves, to be outspoken and committed to what’s moral and right."

"As the vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, I am motivated by his words, which call for us to speak with clarity and boldness in standing against the real and imminent threats to a decent and equitable education for all Michigan children," Pugh said.

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the children, praised Pugh's decision.

"It is a brave and significant act of board member Pugh to stand up on the right side of history and the side of these children who've long been denied their right to education by the state of Michigan," Rosenbaum said.

In their filing Friday, the state's legal representatives claim "the facts and applicable laws governing plaintiffs’ complaint have fundamentally changed" and "Michigan’s Legislature has passed significant new laws designed to improve the educational opportunities for students in the Detroit Public School Community District."

In a statement Friday, Whitmer's office noted that she signed on to only the first part of the lawsuit regarding the state's responsibility.

"The State of Michigan is no longer a proper party to the lawsuit due to changed circumstances and the fact that local control has been restored," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a statement. Brown noted the governor "believes that every student deserves a quality public education.

"That’s why her proposed budget will make the biggest investment in public school operations in a generation of kids, including more than $22 million for Detroit Public Schools," Brown said.

Board president Cassandra Ulbrich was not immediately available for comment.

Board member Tiffany Tilley, D-Southfield, said Tuesday she is also looking at other options and is considering taking a stance different than the one taken by the state.

“I want to explore all the options. I don’t necessarily agree with the stance that has been taken now,” Tilley said. “I wasn’t given enough information about the lawsuit and what was going to transpire.”

The motion filed Friday by the state is signed by Deputy Solicitor General Eric Restuccia instead of Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is distancing herself from the state’s argument.

The attorney general’s office has established a conflict wall in the literacy case and Nessel “may choose to take a different position,” Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said Friday.   

Two board members, Tom McMillin, R-Oakland Township, and Nikki Snyder, R-Dexter, took specific legal positions in the state's brief filed Friday.

McMillin and Snyder say that U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III correctly held that no fundamental constitutional right to access literacy exists and he properly denied the students' equal protection claim against the state.

"Defendants McMillin and Snyder argue that the district court correctly found that the U.S. Constitution does not recognize a fundamental right of access to literacy, nor should the courts recognize such a right," the brief says.

"Educational policy decisions should be made through public debate and legislative changes both at the state and local community level — not by the courts."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.