Settlement for Detroit literacy lawsuit eyes nearly $100M in funding

Lansing — A historic settlement reached between the state and Detroit students calls for $94.5 million in future literacy funding, a $280,000 payout among seven plaintiffs and the creation of two Detroit task forces to help ensure a quality education for students.

News of the agreement came after the Detroit students were locked in a nearly four-year legal battle with the state for better school and learning conditions. The lawsuit was brought by seven students who argued they were deprived access to literacy because of a lack of books, teachers and poor building conditions. 

Despite the state's position to defend itself against the students' accusations of inequality over literacy access, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday she has maintained that every student, no matter where they come from, has a birthright to a quality public education.

Jamarria Hall stands outside Osborn High School. Hall is a DPS graduate and plaintiff in a lawsuit against the State of Michigan alleging a lack of access to literacy in Detroit's schools.

The governor admitted Thursday that the Detroit students "faced obstacles they never should have faced."

"Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read — obstacles they never should have faced," she said. "In the future, I will remain committed to ensuring paths to literacy for children across Michigan. Today’s settlement is a good start, but there’s more work to do to create paths to opportunity for our children."

The governor said she would propose legislation that would provide Detroit Public School Community District with at least $94.5 million for literacy-related programs and initiatives. The state also agrees to provide $2.7 million to be paid to the Detroit district to fund various literacy-related support.

The proposal faces an uncertain road in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has fought with the Democratic governor over budget priorities including education spending.

In 2019, Whitmer ended up vetoing more than $900 million in GOP spending priorities and transferring more than $600 million inside department budgets to assert her own spending priorities, a move that angered Republican leaders and was eventually resolved months later in restored funding for most vetoed allocations. 

The settlement goes into effect early next week after attorneys for the students voluntarily dismiss their lawsuit against the state. Parts of the settlement will need approvals from the GOP-led state Legislature.

As part of the proposed settlement, the Detroit Literacy Equity Task Force will be created outside of state government to conduct yearly evaluations around literacy in Detroit and will provide state-level policy recommendations to the governor, according to the governor's office.

This task force will include students, parents, literacy experts, teachers, a paraprofessional and other community members.

The other task force, the Detroit Educational Policy Committee, will focus on the stability and quality of the overall educational ecosystem in Detroit; the accessibility of a quality school to all children in Detroit; and school improvement, facilities, teaching and educational materials, according to the governor's office.

The settlement also calls for Whitmer to ask the Michigan Department of Education to advise school districts throughout the state as to how they might use evidence-based literacy strategies, initiatives and programs to improve access to literacy and literacy proficiency, with special attention to reducing class, racial and ethnic disparities.   

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, had yet to see the details of the agreement Thursday afternoon, said his spokeswoman, Amber McCann. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, was not available for comment.

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the students, said the settlement is deliberately structured so that it doesn’t depend solely on the current Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature to approve the $94.5 million.

"The legislation, which Gov. Whitmer has committed to support vigorously, is over a period of time of her entire time in office," Rosenbaum said. "It's over two terms, we hope."

The settlement does not need to be approved in court, Rosenbaum noted.

"We are voluntarily dismissed. We will file those papers," he said. "As far as we are concerned, we are done with the courtroom."

Jamarria Hall, a plaintiff in the case, said the case represented a battle for equality for all children.

"It’s a battle for equality. It’s a battle for us all to be productive as a country ... to have a safe, comfortable, learning environment," Hall said. “Change is coming, it's been a long time coming.

“It means everything to have our voices heard. Knowing that justice will be served. There are better days to come. We can still get it done. It is never too late."

Hall previously described conditions inside Osborn High School, a Detroit public school, where he graduated at the top of his class in 2017.

Hall said teachers failed to show up for class for days and students were sent to the gymnasium to watch movies. Classrooms lacked textbooks. And no one, from students to teachers to administrators, seemed to care about the inferior learning environment at his school.

Hall, now 19 and living in Florida, recalled the moldy smell of the school hallway, dead mice in the bathroom, water falling from the classroom ceilings into buckets or onto students' heads.

At the time of the lawsuit's filing, the plaintiffs were students at five low-performing schools in Detroit: three schools in the Detroit Public Schools district, which is now known as Detroit Public Schools Community District, and two charter schools.

As recently as Wednesday, protesters had urged the governor to reach a settlement in the case, which sought a historic court order ruling students have a constitutional right to literacy. 

Rosenbaum called the agreement a “historic settlement” that recognizes the constitutional right of access to literacy.

“This is what the force of history looks like,” Rosenbaum said. “By accepting the court’s decision that a minimum basic education is a foundational requirement for full participation in our democracy, Governor Whitmer is acknowledging that no child should be denied his or her right to fully pursue the American Dream based on the color of their skin or their family’s income."

Is this the end of it?

Last month, a federal appeals court panel ruled 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." Earlier this month, Michigan's Legislature had asked the full appeals court in Cincinnati to set aside the ruling by the three-judge panel and hear the case due to its "exceptional importance."

In light of that request, a question remains as to whether the settlement reached in Detroit is really an end to the case.

Some legal experts say the door remains open in the case in the federal appeals court because the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has not answered a request by the Michigan Legislature to set aside the panel’s decision and have the full court hearing the case, en banc.

Carter Phillips, an attorney representing the students with the firm of Sidley Austin, said the settlement announced on Thursday should “dampen any enthusiasm” for taking the case to a full appeals court, but it does not insulate the ruling.

But Evan Caminker, dean emeritus and professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, said the settlement “should end the matter.”

On Wednesday, the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office filed an amicus brief on behalf of 10 states — Tennessee, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, and Texas — asking the 6th Circuit Court to allow the Detroit case to be heard by the full panel.

Sarah K. Campbell, associate solicitor general for the Tennessee AG office, wrote that the panel established a fundamental right to education that it claimed was “narrow in scope.”

“But that ostensibly 'narrow' right will radically transform the public education system,” Campbell said. “It will transfer authority to decide basic policy questions away from the state and local officials best suited to address them to unelected federal judges who are ill-suited for such a role. And it will mire states in unremitting and costly litigation without improving educational outcomes.”

Michael Rebell, a professor of law and educational practice at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, said there is tremendous political pressure on the case from the recent filing from 10 attorneys general.

Rebell, who is lead counsel in a literacy case in Rhode Island in federal court, said pending a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to not rehear the Detroit case, the settlement reached on Thursday might help his case and those of others seeking better learning condition in America's K-12 schools.

The Detroit case and its settlement have legal implications for all students across the United States, Rebell said.

"The (Detroit) settlement impacts our case. There is now a precedent in the 6th circuit. It is a big breakthrough. In 45 years, there has been no federal court saying there is any type of right," Rebell said. "This (settlement) seals it, except for this hearing, which is not likely. The door is not totally closed on this.”

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

'Ugly face of politics'

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti issued a statement on Thursday, celebrating the victory and the people who made it possible, but said it does not provide full accountability for the district, which has nearly $1 billion in facilities needs.

“Unfortunately, this settlement does not make the students or the school district whole after the abomination of emergency management. I blame the ugly face of politics for that,” Vitti said.

Whitmer, Vitti said, had her hands tied by the Legislature in providing more of what the district and children deserve.

"Her legacy has yet to be defined as a transformative force for Detroit's children educationally. That legacy will be defined by how hard she fights for the proposed changes to per-pupil funding and the district debt restructuring that is named in the settlement," Vitti said.

Pamela Pugh, vice president of the state board, called the settlement the "unfinished work" of Brown v Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

Pugh was one of two state board members who sided with the students in court documents, despite being a named plaintiff in the case.

“This is a great day, a great moment,” Pugh said. “There are people all over the county celebrating this victory with Detroit, watching and waiting if justice will be served. This victory is for the voiceless. I am so happy I was able to be on this right side of history.”

Detroit activist Helen Moore, who has followed the case in support of the students since its inception, celebrated the settlement.

"Right now, I'm just happy," Moore said from her home in Detroit. "This is a victory for our kids in Detroit and across the nation. The chain of slavery has been broken by the right to read."

The long-term impact of a substandard K-12 public education is among several legal arguments that were raised in the high-profile civil lawsuit.

Legal experts had been split on the case's ability to ultimately set a new precedent that would change the way states are required to deliver education in America. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to education, and the nation’s highest court so far has not weighed in.

The students had tremendous support from the more than 45 amicus briefs filed in the case that urged the federal appeals court to declare the education being provided to children in Detroit is separate and unequal compared to its well-resourced neighbors, and that a lack of literacy dooms children to a future with low earnings and no voice in a democratic society.

The state of Michigan has fought the lawsuit since it was filed first against Gov. Rick Snyder and then Whitmer when she became governor, countering 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 opposition to the suit was not related to the question of a student's right to literacy, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer. The Democratic governor had argued the state should not be culpable because Detroit public schools are now back under local control, she said.

Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said the settlement could impact more than Detroit's schools. 

"How can you say that Detroiters are the only ones entitled to this new right? You can’t," Thiel said.

"Detroit was likely the test case, but other districts — Flint, Benton Harbor — are exactly where Detroit is in terms of student achievement and with some of the same state oversight history."

Two Detroit students not involved in the case said Thursday they were shocked and happy that a settlement had been reached but were concerned whether it would be enough to bring true equity to education systems in Detroit, which have been ravaged by disinvestment for decades.

Laila Nasher, a senior at Detroit charter school Universal Academy, said the lawsuit is something she and other activists have been focused on for nearly four years.

"Everyone has recognized education as an equalizer. But it will take decades to actually fix," Nasher said.

At her school, Nasher said she did not have art supplies or musical instruments. High school students only had two AP classes to pick from and 30 of the 33 teachers there were long-term substitute teachers, she said.

"If this case was settled earlier, this would have helped fixed that," Nasher said. "We know when that many subs are teaching that many core classes we are not learning. I always wanted to learn how to play an instrument."

Emily Wilson, a senior at Cass Tech, said she thinks it's a shame it took so long to bring a settlement in the case. She said her school with 2,500 students could use more social workers.

"It's a great feeling that this is a possibility. We will have to see what the details are and what's in it," Wilson said. "It may be what we want but not all the way. There is always a catch."