Our editorial: Court wrong place to enforce literacy

The Detroit News

There is no question that too many students at Michigan’s largest school district have received a sub-par education. While Detroit children deserve basic literacy, the courtroom isn’t the place to fix the problems that have plagued the district.

A civil lawsuit brought by seven Detroit students — and represented by the California law firm Public Counsel — was filed a year ago in federal court. U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III heard arguments last week.

The lawsuit aims to prove that these students were denied their right of access to literacy, and the lawyers are hoping the case lands before the Supreme Court. Three buildings within the Detroit Public Schools Community District, infamous for its low test scores and poor building conditions, and two charter schools are named in the suit.

Gov. Rick Snyder, the members of the State Board of Education, Superintendent Brian Whiston and other state officials are defendants.

The lawsuit claims Detroit students have not had equal access to literacy and demands a variety of accountability measures such as screening and intervention. The suit is using the 14th amendment to argue for an equal right to literacy and wants to expand on the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

There is federal precedent, but this case seeks a different outcome. A 1973 Supreme Court decision, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, found there is no constitutional right to an education.

Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, says that in the months since the lawsuit was filed, conditions in the district have worsened and he points to the large number of teaching vacancies among other shortcomings as proof.

“In 2017, no child should be forced to ask a court to enforce his or her fundamental right to be given the opportunity to learn, grow and participate in society. Yet here we are,” Rosenbaum said in statement following the hearing.

The case, however, fails to recognize substantial changes that have taken place in the last year. The state bailed out the district last summer, sending a $617 million lifeline as well as a return to local control. An elected school board took over in January and new superintendent Nikolai Vitti started his post in May.

State officials have asked the judge to toss the case, rejecting the legal right to literacy. That doesn’t mean the state is supporting bad schools. Snyder has tried to put different turnaround strategies in place in Detroit, even though those efforts largely flopped. But the governor has also backed more investment in early literacy, as well as legislation to ensure students are reading by third grade.

In its motion to dismiss last November, the state argued that the implications of the case are far-reaching:

“(They) ask this court to serve as a ‘super’ Legislature tasked with determining and dictating educational policy in every school district and school building throughout the United States where an illiterate child may be found,” the state’s legal team wrote.

The ACLU of Michigan in 2012 filed a lawsuit saying Highland Park students were denied their right to read. But the state constitution only specifies the state provide the infrastructure for education, so the lawsuit was dismissed.

Federal courts have traditionally been reluctant to intervene in local school decisions, including how districts are funded and operated.

The solution here is not to turn over the schools to the court, but rather to shut the failing schools and provide the children with the resources necessary for them to attend better schools.

That could form the basis of a settlement that gets the children what they need, without giving up local control of the schools.