Bankole: Detroit kids deserve right to literacy

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

In 2013, an article in the Atlantic magazine asked the question: “Why doesn’t the constitution guarantee the right to education?” The article goes on to add that “every country that outperforms the U.S. has a constitutional or statutory commitment to this right.”

So what were the framers of the constitution thinking when they left education out as a fundamental right and instead passed the responsibility to the states to make that call?

Maybe they were thinking education should remain the exclusive preserve of the rich and powerful where those with the most resources receive the best education and can move ahead instead of making it a right for everyone.

Obviously the framers did not think about the needs of disadvantaged members of the Republic — blacks and others alike — who to this day continue to grapple with the crisis of public education in places like Detroit.

That thinking is now playing in a federal lawsuit filed against the state of Michigan naming Gov. Rick Snyder and state education leaders as defendants. State lawyers have since responded that no fundamental right to literacy exists for Detroit children.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of students at some of the lowest performing schools in the district claims that the state has excluded the students from the state educational system and thus is seeking a class action status that would lead to access to literacy, among other things.

The shortage of books, the dilapidated school buildings and unhealthy learning environments are just examples of what could be determined as factors impeding access to literacy in the schools named in the suit.

“For the last 15 years, the state has run the Detroit schools, and has run them into the ground,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the lawyers with Public Counsel, the California-based law firm that filed the suit against the state.

Rosenbaum is right that the district has been under state supervision for more than a decade, which helped to create some of its problems.

In 1999 when the state took over the district, its finances were in a surplus. Yet, the takeover has not only been a cataclysmic failure, but one of the worst experiments ever undertaken in state government.

Among the many reasons advanced for the state intervention was the incompetent leadership of the Detroit Board of Education. But the fact remains that since the state takeover, the schools have never been made whole and Detroit children have suffered the most in the process. The children who attend DPS are trapped in a system that seriously offers no hope for their educational advancement.

And some of the district’s state-appointed leaders — from emergency managers to district CEOs appointed under Republican and Democratic administrations — seemed more interested in debating rules about district contracts and procurement than in curriculum development for children.

One of those leaders was Kenneth Burnley, who as CEO of the district had the power to approve all contracts of $200,000 or more without board approval.

Under his leadership, a lot of questionable spending took place that would require hours to explain. The kind of governance birthed one deficit after another.

The bottom line is that the federal case should have all of us seriously thinking about how the state failed the district and that the $617 million legislative package that was passed in Lansing to jump start the new Detroit Public Schools Community District is just one step to address the problem.

In our continued demand for corrective measures over the state’s failed experiment we cannot also excuse the lack of intestinal fortitude among some in Detroit’s civic community who served as spectators during an era that cheated school children of their future. For example, the corruption investigations of the district and subsequent convictions are all examples of how Detroit children were taken for a ride.

They deserve the right to literacy and more.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.