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Detroit superintendent, school board chief urge gov to settle literacy lawsuit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The superintendent of Detroit's public school system and its board president are asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to settle a legal challenge filed by Detroit schoolchildren over literacy and "to stop listening to attorneys and rely on your instincts."

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, and Iris Taylor, board president, sent a letter to Whitmer on Wednesday asserting it is the right time to settle the lawsuit after a federal appeals court ruled last week that the U.S. Constitution provides a remedy to “children relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy."

Read:Letter to governor from Detroit superintendent, school board president

In a 2016 lawsuit, seven Detroit students alleged that a lack of books, classrooms without teachers, poor building conditions and extreme temperatures deprived them access to literacy in their public schools. 

"The (appeals court) decision shines a bright light on the State’s failures toward the school district’s children and employees, mainly teachers," the letter said. "Despite the district’s improvement under an elected empowered school board and appointed superintendent, the legacy of state control will negatively impact children and the community for years. Accountability and justice are required."

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Detroit students have a fundamental but limited right to basic minimum education and have standing to sue the state for alleged violations of that right.

In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court panel warned that the right to education “is narrow in scope” to include access to skills deemed “essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties, most importantly participation in our political system.”

But the appeals panel ruled the students failed to make adequate arguments about equal protection and compulsory attendance at schools that are "schools in name only."

The lawsuit has been closely been watched by education, legal and civil rights experts, some of whom have said it would end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The state of Michigan, the defendant in the case, has countered that decreased student enrollment triggered a loss of money to Detroit schools and that the state is not responsible for what happened in the district during two decades of on-again, off-again oversight.

Whitmer’s office, while not opposed to the idea of a right to education, has continued to fight the lawsuit, arguing the state should not be a named defendant because Detroit schools are now under local control and lawmakers had done much to improve Detroit public schools in recent years.

The Attorney General’s Office is representing Whitmer’s position, but Attorney General Dana Nessel last year attempted to distance herself from that stance and take the side of the students. 

The letter by Vitti and Taylor says the "record on education" simply does not align with the legal position taken by the governor's office and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office in this case. 

"Put another way, your demonstrated understanding of the need to remedy inequity does not support the position of your predecessor or the continuation of this case. Now that this decision has been rendered, there is no better time to settle," the letter says.

"We respect your advocacy for traditional public education throughout the state and in Detroit. However, we encourage you to stop listening to attorneys and rely on your instincts," the letter says.

Vitti and Taylor say they acknowledge the state made small steps in the right direction through the creation of Detroit Public Schools Community District with an empowered locally elected school board and the restructuring of the district's debt.

"The journey to accountability and investment is not complete. More importantly, the State has not addressed the legacy and current inequities perpetuated within its K-12 funding structure or the deteriorating school building infrastructure that was neglected under state control," the letter says.

"Governor, now is the time for you to leverage this decision to make inroads in the historic and current inequity that holds back the potential of our students," the letter says.

Asked about the letter, Tiffany Brown, Whitmer's spokeswoman, said: "At this time, I can only confirm that we have received the letter and will review."

Nessel spokeswoman Kelley Rossman-McKinney said the attorney general "has made her beliefs about this issue well known."

National and state black leaders have also called for the governor to settle the lawsuit.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Martin Luther King III, Yvonne M. White, president of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP, and state school board member Pamela L. Pugh asked Whitmer to settle the case to ensure equal access to education for black children in Michigan.

King, the son of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., said, "My father said, ‘the walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status.’ Now, the courts have given us a sledgehammer to break down that wall and emerge into true equal opportunity through education. It only requires political will and investment."

jchambers@detroitnews.com