Two Detroit lawmakers press Michigan for literacy funding

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Two state lawmakers said it's time for their colleagues to approve and deliver $94.4 million in funding for literacy programs for Detroit students that are part of the legal settlement of a historic public education case.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last May reached a settlement between the state and a group of Detroit students who sued over their right to literacy. In the deal, Whitmer agreed to ask the state Legislature to approve $94.4 million for literacy efforts for Detroit children.

State Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit) talks about the "right to read lawsuit" against the state and the new legislation that he introduced to help every child in Detroit to a quality education.

State Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, introduced House Bill 4480, which would appropriate $94.4 million to fund literacy-related programs and initiatives for Detroit Public Schools Community District. 

"This is an obligation by the state of Michigan to the children of our city and we are not going to let that be forgotten," Thanedar said on Monday at a press conference outside Pershing High School in Detroit. "We are here to make sure the state delivers to our children. We will not rest until that money comes to our district so we can begin literacy programs."

HB 4480 has been referred to the House committee on appropriations. State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, has introduced similar legislation in the Senate (SB 148).

Whitmer's office on Monday said she would support the bills from Hollier and Thanedar, which still need the approval of a majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate. 

State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, says the funding his legislation would provide is a "down payment" on efforts to boost literacy for the city's schoolchildren.

“Gov. Whitmer is committed to following through on her obligations under the literacy settlement," said Chelsea Lewis-Parisio, a spokeswoman for Whitmer.

Besides funding, the settlement requires the Michigan Department of Education to provide guidance to districts on literacy. It also called for the creation of the Detroit Literacy Equity Task Force and the Detroit Education Policy Committee to advise the governor on literacy and education in the city.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit in 2016 by seven Detroit schoolchildren, had been closely watched by education, legal and civil rights experts, some of whom said it would end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

On April 23, 2020, a panel from the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 ruling that the students' right to education includes access to skills deemed “essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties, most importantly participation in our political system.”

That opinion, written by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay, said that implicit in the Constitution is a fundamental right to literacy, because without it one cannot exercise other rights fundamental to democracy. The ruling was vacated and the case was appealed to the full appeals court, but the settlement was reached before it could be heard.

“Different courts may have varying opinions, but I believe literacy is a fundamental right that must be upheld and protected like any of those enshrined in the U.S. Constitution,” said Thanedar. “Appropriating these critical dollars is a good first step.”

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

Hollier said the funding "is a down payment and the beginning of what we are going to do in literacy for children."

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD superintendent, said the money will be used for literacy intervention programs to work with students who are two or more years below grade-level performance and for hiring more academic interventionists, full-time teachers to work with students in small groups, or literacy partners to provide support.

“This funding is owed to the district based on the settlement. It is owed to the students and families whose public school system was damaged as a result of emergency management and the loss of local control and accountability," Vitti said.

Beth LeBlanc contributed.