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 Michigan has robbed Detroit students of their constitutional right to "the most basic building block of education: literacy," a new federal lawsuit charges. (Photo: Kevin O'Mara/flickr/cc)

Decrying State's "Systemic and Deliberate Failure," Detroit Students Demand Constitutional Right to Literacy

The schools are "irreparably damaging children's futures," new federal lawsuit charges

Andrea Germanos

A group of students at some of Detroit's lowest performing schools have taken sharp aim at the state of Michigan, filing a lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday that accuses Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials of "disinvestment in and deliberate indifference" to the schools, thus robbing the youth of their constitutional right to "the most basic building block of education: literacy."

"I have friends who can't read, but it's not because they aren't smart, it's because the State has failed them," said Jamarria Hall, who attends Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy and is one of the seven plaintiffs.

The suit (pdf) states that "by its actions and inactions, the State of Michigan's systemic, persistent, and deliberate failure to deliver instruction and tools essential for access to literacy in Plaintiffs' schools, which serve almost exclusively low-income children of color, deprives students of even a fighting chance." As such, the schools are "irreparably damaging children's futures."

As Carter Phillips, the chairman of the international business law firm Sidley Austin's executive committee, said, "A right of access to literacy is well-grounded upon existing Supreme Court precedent construing the Fourteenth Amendment."

The five schools named have "abysmal" and "slum-like conditions." In the classrooms, "not even the pretense of education takes place" but rather "appalling outcomes" are delivered. A press statement from law firm Public Counsel, which is representing the plaintiffs adds, "The student proficiency rates in these schools hover near zero in core subject areas."

Such situations, the suit continues, "would be unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations." In fact, the students' schooling is "both separate and unequal."

These students "cannot take for granted that their public schools will serve as engines of democracy and social mobility, or even adequately provide the most fundamental elements of literacy."

It goes on to note that the Detroit public schools have, for "most of the past fifteen years," been controlled "through variations of an emergency manager system," and that "placing the Detroit schools largely in the hands of administrators with no backgrounds in education [... has] only hastened the demise of Plaintiffs' schools."

The lawsuit seeks as relief appropriate literacy instruction at all grade levels, screening for literacy problems, "timely and appropriate intervention with individual students to prevent or remediate reading difficulties," and monitoring and intervention for conditions that deny access to literacy," such as "deplorable school conditions."

Hall told local ABC affiliate WXYX, "I just hope it leads to change."

Accoding to Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law project, "This suit is the next great step on the historic 'Walk to Freedom' begun by Rev. Franklin and Dr. King over a half century ago, and carried on for generations by Detroit students, families, teachers, and community members. Would Governor Snyder send his children to these schools?"


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