Detroit children have the right to literacy

Alisa Hartz and Michael Kelley

Seven brave, determined students in five Detroit schools—public and charter—recently brought a lawsuit against Governor Rick Snyder charging that the State of Michigan has violated their right to literacy.

These young people follow in the footsteps of the many generations of Detroit students, families, teachers, and community members who have fought tirelessly to make real our commitments to civil rights and racial justice. These students desperately want to learn. Their teachers passionately want to teach.

But instead of providing the support and decent conditions that young people need to thrive, the State has denied them access to literacy and instead provided unsafe, unsanitary buildings that are schools-in-names only.

Access to literacy is our society’s essential precondition for social mobility, economic self-sufficiency, and civic participation in our democracy. Literacy — the ability to use written language to obtain knowledge and communicate with the world — is the fundamental building block of education. Children who cannot read, write, and comprehend are denied access to all areas of learning — they cannot do a word problem on a math exam or follow the instructions for a chemistry experiment.

Tragically, the State of Michigan’s disinvestment and deliberate indifference has deprived Detroit schoolchildren of this basic right. The failure to deliver literacy is staggering: At Hamilton Academy, more than 96 percent of third- and fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. High school students fared even worse, with over 98 percent of 11th-graders falling below English proficiency at Osborn MST. According to national assessment data, Detroit public school students have ranked last among large city school districts in reading and math proficiency for four consecutive reporting periods.

The conditions in many Detroit schools shock the conscience and make proper delivery of literacy instruction impossible. These schools — which serve overwhelmingly low-income students of color and are bounded by the most segregating school district line in the country — do not have enough books for students. The books they have are often out-of-date, inappropriate, or illegible. One high school history class uses a textbook published in 1998, featuring President Bill Clinton. Books, pens, pencils and paper are purchased by teachers with thousands of dollars of their own meager salaries.

Conditions in these students’ classrooms are unsanitary and even dangerous. Temperatures can exceed 90 degrees in both summer and winter, and in the winter students sit behind their desks bundled up in coats, seeing their breath. Classrooms are infested with mice, cockroaches and other vermin. Toilet stalls lack toilet paper. Plaster falls from the ceiling during class.

Under such conditions, is it any wonder that achievement is so low or that teacher turnover is so high? Hundreds of teaching vacancies throughout Detroit result in assignment of students to classrooms supervised by adults without teaching credentials, or, even worse, to classrooms with no teachers at all. At Hamilton Academy, a seventh and eighth grade math class was taught by an eighth-grade student for a month.

As these students’ suit alleges, these deprivations violate our preconceptions of an education, and they also violate the Constitution. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection of the law and protects our fundamental rights. The Supreme Court has held that the exclusion of a discrete group of children from the ability to attain literacy necessary to participate in the economic, social, and political life of our nation is incompatible with the Constitution’s guarantees of liberty and equality.

These Detroit schools are both separate and unequal. Detroit students have the right to something better. And it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that all children in Michigan have equal access to literacy. Gov. Snyder: Would you send your children to these schools?

Alisa Hartz is a staff attorney for Public Counsel. Michael Kelley is a partner at Sidley Austin LLP.