Nessel to file on behalf of Detroit kids' cause in literacy case

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Mackinac Island — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she will file in opposition to the governor’s position in a lawsuit alleging that the state deprived Detroit students of their right to literacy due to deplorable conditions at the facilities and dwindling numbers of teachers and textbooks.

At the Mackinac Policy Conference Wednesday, Nessel told The Detroit News that while her office has a duty to represent the governor she also is an independently elected official with an obligation to represent the people of the state of Michigan.

She intends to file parens patriae, or on behalf of the residents of Michigan, “to do what I think is best for them personally.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday argued in a response to the lawsuit filed by the attorney general's office that because Detroit schools have been returned to local control the state should not be subject to the lawsuit.

On the question of a student’s constitutional right to literacy, the filing from Deputy Attorney General Eric Restuccia largely remained silent.

Instead, Whitmer has said in separate comments to The News that she’s “always believed that every child in the state has a birthright to a great education” and that increased funding in her budget puts that education within reach.

Nessel’s office signaled last week that the attorney general may not be fully on board with the governor’s position, noting that the response had been filed by Restuccia and that Nessel had built a conflict wall to maintain her independence from the argument.

“Sometimes I’m not always going to be in lock step with the arguments that are set forth by our clients, our client agencies or the executives,” Nessel said. “When that happens sometimes I have to go my own way and make the arguments that I feel are just and that I feel are appropriate and that’s what’s happened in this case.”

At least one state board of education member named as a defendant in the lawsuit also has said she will not be taking or supporting the state’s position made Friday in a brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals that sought a dismissal of the 2016 lawsuit.

Compensation is needed to make amends for the state’s control of the district for almost 20 years, Michigan Board of Education Vice President Pamela Pugh said.

"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.

Whitmer told The News Tuesday that she believed the board had been fully briefed, understood and supported the legal briefings.

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