Editorial: Focus on Detroit literacy outside of court

The Detroit News
DPSCD Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti addresses attendees at the celebration of the $10 million revitalization of the Breithaupt Career Technical Center, Thursday, April 18, 2019.  Behind him is a Chevy Malibu used by auto shop students to run diagnostics and learn automobile functions.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is taking heat for trying to disentangle the state from a three-year-old federal lawsuit over Detroit literacy. The court was never the place to address the entrenched problems facing the city’s schoolchildren, and Whitmer is right to fight this battle with other means.

The governor’s attorneys last month argued that the state should no longer be on the hook in the 2016 lawsuit, since the Detroit Public Schools Community District was returned to a locally elected school board in 2017.

A California public interest law firm filed the suit on behalf of Detroit schoolchildren who claimed they were being denied their right of access to literacy because of horrible building conditions, too few teachers and other problems. The whole impetus of the lawsuit has been to get before the U.S. Supreme Court the question of whether a constitutional right to literacy exists. Up until now, the courts have said it doesn’t, and that was affirmed last summer by U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III, who dismissed the case.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs then filed an appeal, and the case still sits before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In typical fashion, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is doing things her own way, and she disagrees with Whitmer on this. Nessel has said she will file an opposing viewpoint since she feels her loyalties lie more with the people of Michigan than with the governor.

It’s not as if Whitmer is saying literacy doesn’t matter. That was never the argument former Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette made, either. Rather, they believed giving the courts so much authority to dictate what districts must do would strip “democratic control of schools.”

Whitmer is pushing for more literacy coaches in schools and additional funding for struggling districts. She’d also be wise to support the existing third-grading reading law, and ensure schools are ready to start implementing it.

Similarly DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has worked since he got hired two years ago on revamping the district’s reading and math curriculum. He’s hopeful it will start making a difference in student performance. But the district still has other challenges, including a high student absentee rate, which makes learning gains difficult.

Plus, Vitti has faced pushback from the Detroit teachers union when he recently attempted to extend the school calendar and include additional days of professional development for staff. The union rejected that, which was frustrating to Vitti, who says that long summer breaks and other extended time away from the classroom led to learning losses Detroit students can’t afford.

The problems with literacy in Detroit are real, and students deserve better. But the courts, which have traditionally resisted getting involved in local education decisions, aren’t the place to address these challenges.