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Lawsuit: Learning conditions in Detroit schools violate US Constitution

Sep 13, 2016

Learning conditions in many Detroit schools are so bad, they violate students’ basic rights under the U.S. Constitution.

That’s what a new federal lawsuit contends. It was filed on behalf of students at five of the lowest-performing Detroit schools, including one charter school.

The suit cites an ongoing lack of basic educational resources, including teachers, that together deny children of their “constitutional right to literacy.”

And it lays blame squarely on the state government. “Decades of state disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to the Detroit schools have denied plaintiff schoolchildren access to the most basic building block of education: literacy,” the lawsuit states.

Pro bono law firms and education advocates brought the lawsuit on the students’ behalf. It also names Gov. Snyder and state education officials as defendants, and seeks class-action status.

Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says this was a last resort because “It’s now crystal clear that the governor is not going to act unless a federal court steps in.”

Rosenbaum says the lawsuit doesn’t ask for specific remedies, but demands that the state take steps to provide “evidence-based literacy instruction,” and remove “impediments to learning” like substandard building conditions.

“That isn’t rocket science. It isn’t some complicated new sort of remedy,” Rosenbaum said. “What we’re asking the state is to care about these kids.”

In asserting that schoolchildren have a fundamental right to literacy — and suing the state of Michigan for failing to provide it — the suit echoes one the Michigan ACLU filed in 2012 on behalf of students in Highland Park.

That “right to read” case was dismissed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which held that the state constitution does not necessarily guarantee all schoolchildren an adequate education.

But this case was filed in federal court, with the belief that “a right of access to literacy is well-grounded upon existing Supreme Court precedent construing the Fourteenth Amendment,” which guarantees equal protection under the law.

While Lansing stepped in to keep the state-run Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy this summer, Detroit Federation of Teachers interim president Ivy Bailey says it wasn’t enough to sustain the district.

“The money the state gave us was not enough money,” said Bailey. “They’re starving us.”

A spokesperson for the new Detroit Public Schools Community District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  Gov. Snyder spokesman Ari Adler declined to comment on “pending litigation.”