Hearing debates who failed Detroit’s students

Jennifer Chambers

Detroit — An attorney representing seven Detroit schoolchildren suing the state over a lack of access to education said one solution to the public school district’s deplorable conditions and teacher shortage is to order the state to treat Detroit like it treats every other school district.

“The court can say to the state: You’re the experts. The state knows how to run a school system in classrooms in Grosse Pointe. We are asking the state of Michigan to do what other communities do and fix this system so all children have basic access to minimal skills,” attorney Mark Rosenbaum told U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III on Thursday in Detroit.

Rosenbaum, who works for the Los Angeles-based firm Public Counsel, filed what is considered an unprecedented civil lawsuit that alleges that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right.

Filed in September against Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials, the lawsuit claims the state has functionally excluded Detroit children from Michigan’s educational system. It seeks several guarantees of equal access to literacy, screening, intervention, a statewide accountability system and other measures.

On Thursday, attorneys for the state of Michigan argued the local school district — not the state — was responsible for conditions in the school, such as a lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures inside buildings.

Assistant Attorney General Timothy J. Haynes told Murphy he does not agree the state has controlled the district since 1999, as the lawsuit alleges. State intervention began in 1999 when the state had the authority to appoint part of the school board. The state took control of DPS and installed an emergency financial manager in 2009. Local control resumed on Jan. 1 with a newly elected board.

Murphy asked Haynes who the children should sue if not the state of Michigan, which is constitutionally required to provide an education to children.

“Those who deprived them of their rights. Those who failed to provide teachers,” said Haynes, adding intermediate school districts and local charter authorizers could also be held responsible.

Haynes said emergency managers are local agents — not part of the state — and the mayor of Detroit is responsible for inspecting the schools, not the governor, Haynes said.

“State case law all demonstrates that local districts determine education in the state of Michigan. That’s no different in Detroit,” Haynes said.

Murphy asked Rosenbaum that if he found the state wasn’t responsible, would it be that principals, the men and women who sweep the floors and paint the walls, book orders and others were to blame for the conditions in Detroit’s schools?

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but that is silly, isn’t it?” he responded. “Our complaint is about a statewide system.”

Murphy spent the hour asking both attorneys multiple questions during their oral arguments, saying: “I find the issues quite fascinating.”

Attorneys for both sides cited several U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Haynes said the high court has said education is not a fundamental right. Rosenbaum argued that the high court has said without a basic education citizens cannot participate in the democratic process and are denied their rights.

Rosenbaum said his position is the children in Detroit are getting no education.

“These are schools in name only. The schools are functionally incapable of affording children the basics of education,” Rosenbaum said.

Murphy asked the attorneys how he could determine what amounts to a minimally adequate education or no education, two terms used in U.S. Supreme Court cases cited in the lawsuit.

“We need evidence,” Murphy said.

In his rebuttal, Haynes asked Murphy to consider the nearby Grosse Pointe Public School System.

“Here is the problem, the state does not run that school district, either. The local board does. ... Their failure (in Detroit) to have teachers and textbooks, those are local decisions. He is asking the court to take over these schools and run them,” Haynes said.

Legal experts say Murphy is being asked to open the door to the concept of a constitutional right to literacy — which could one day put the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time.

He said he would issue a written ruling in 30 days or longer.

The plaintiffs are or were students at four of the lowest-performing schools at DPSCD: Hamilton Academy, a DPSCD charter school; Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody, Osborn Academy of Mathematics, and Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy.

Inside the courtroom, about two dozen Detroit high school students attended the hearing. Some were from charter schools and others from DPSCD.

Alondra Alvarez, 17, an incoming senior at Western International High Schools, said she has experienced the conditions mentioned in court, from extreme heat and cold, to no teachers for class, to not having a desk to sit in. She said she still feels she is not reading at a high school level.

“It’s really discouraging if you aren’t given the proper stuff. What am I learning?” she said.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, AFT Michigan President David Hecker and Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey issued a joint statement following the hearing.

“We stand with the children and families bringing this suit because we can no longer tolerate unsafe and unhealthy learning conditions; outdated or nonexistent learning materials; and inadequate investment in the capacity, professional development, and recruitment and retention of Detroit’s teachers, while, at the same time, unaccountable charter schools drain even more resources from public schools,” they said. “We are fighting for safe and healthy schools, learning conditions and materials that engage kids, and the training and support we need to improve our craft.”