Detroit backs DPS students in literacy fight

Jennifer Chambers, The Detroit News

The city of Detroit is siding with seven Detroit public schoolchildren suing Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials over their right to access literacy.

On Thursday, attorneys for the city filed an amicus brief in a proposed class action lawsuit against Snyder and state education officials that is being touted as an unprecedented attempt to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right.

The suit, filed in September by a California public interest law firm, 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.

The city’s brief, filed on Thursday with U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III, urged the court to hold access to literacy as being fundamental, arguing the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show they are being denied that right.

Attorney Eli Savit filed the 27-page brief on behalf of the city.

“Denying children access to literacy today inevitably impedes tomorrow’s job seekers and taxpayers; fathers and mothers; citizens and voters,” Savit wrote. “That is why the Supreme Court has stressed the ‘significant social costs borne by our nation’ when children suffer the ‘stigma of illiteracy’ — and are thereby denied ‘the basic tools by which (to) lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all.’

“The City of Detroit (though it does not control Detroit’s schools) is all too familiar with illiteracy’s far-reaching effects.”

The brief further argued: “widespread illiteracy has hampered the City’s efforts to connect Detroiters with good-paying jobs; to fill vacancies on its police force; and to grow its tax base. Illiteracy, moreover, has greatly exacerbated the effects of inter-generational poverty in Detroit.”

The brief cited a 1998 study commissioned by the U.S Department of Education that reported 47 percent of Detroiters lacked basic reading and writing skills.

More recently in 2015, the National Assessment of Education Progress determined 93 percent of Detroit’s eighth-graders were not proficient in reading, according to the brief.

Savit said every Detroit student meeting minimum academic standards is now entitled to a scholarship to a four-year college or university, and the city has recently launched major efforts to connect Detroiters with the skills training needed for successful careers.

“Ultimately, however, Detroit’s renaissance will lag if its children are not afforded a fair opportunity to learn how to read and write. Perhaps more than any other municipal entity, the City of Detroit understands how fundamental literacy is to a stable, vibrant community,” Savit said.

Savit noted over the past several years, the city also has made significant strides including the return of businesses downtown, more than 65,000 new LED lights installed across the city and more than 10,000 blighted homes demolished since 2014.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Thursday the state does not comment on pending litigation.

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.

Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he is pleased that the city, along with other groups, is joining forces with the students in support of their effort.

“The city’s action underscores the importance of this case to the students and the entire community of Detroit,” Rosenbaum said.