Opinion: State shouldn’t duck school responsibility

Steven J. Norton
Stable, intelligent education policy and sufficient funding is needed for our schools, Norton writes.

We were disappointed to read the Whitmer administration’s argument for excusing itself from the federal case brought by five Detroit school children. State attorneys argued that the case should be dismissed because the issues have become moot.

The plaintiff families say their children were denied their fundamental right to literacy and the state must accept responsibility for the deplorable conditions in many Detroit public schools which was the cause — an argument that was unsuccessful at trial.

State attorneys argue that the case, now in the 6th circuit Court of Appeals, addresses only past actions by the government and changes in the last few years should get the state off the hook. But our children’s education should not be held hostage to the pendulum swings of state politics. In that spirit, we welcome Attorney General Dana Nessel’s announced intentions to file a separate brief, on behalf of the people of Michigan, in support of the families.

As Michigan public school parents, we are disappointed by the state’s response because we believe that every child does have a right to a quality education. To say otherwise implies that the state constitution’s mandate for a “system of free public elementary and secondary schools” charges the state with nothing more than providing a place where children might sit for seven hours doing nothing in particular. A full and meaningful test of our state and national governments’ responsibility to educate future citizens is a worthy goal in itself.

The state’s brief argues that the return of Detroit schools to an elected board and repeal of the law creating the school reform office mean that the bad days are over — and anyway it’s now the school board’s problem. The brief waxes eloquent about the state’s “deeply rooted tradition of local control,” conveniently ignoring the state’s enormous statutory authority over public schools.

The 500-pound gorilla, of course, is the state’s control over all operational school funding through the appropriations process. Not only does the state control the money, it also attaches numerous strings to those dollars. The irony of the state’s argument, made in the middle of the annual budget process, is breathtaking.

The state’s brief also gushes that the newly minted Detroit Public Schools Community District is no longer under state emergency management. However, the laws authorizing state intervention on financial and other grounds remain on the books, waiting to be dusted off for the next crisis.

It’s true that the section of the school code authorizing the state reform office was repealed, and the state no longer identifies “priority schools” for intervention. But the very same law both mandates a letter-grade school accountability system and charges the state Department of Education with identifying “comprehensive support and improvement schools” and developing “accountability measures to impose on public schools that have been identified” as such schools. You can’t disavow the results while you keep hold of the controls.

The reality is that schools across the state are struggling, at some level, with many of the same issues so painfully on display in Detroit schools. None of the changes highlighted in the state’s filing change that situation. We have seen some positive developments for public education in Lansing of late, but something as crucial as our children’s education should not depend entirely on the outcome of the last election. We need stable, intelligent education policy and sufficient funding for our schools. This is a discussion which is long overdue, no matter where it takes place.

Steve Norton is executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, a non-partisan, public interest advocacy group working for strong public schools for all Michigan children.