Michigan settles suit after landmark right to read ruling

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will ask the Michigan Legislature to provide at least $94.4 million to Detroit’s public schools to settle a lawsuit that describes the city’s schools as “slum-like” and basically incapable of delivering access to literacy.

The settlement agreement was signed Thursday and comes weeks after a federal appeals court issued a groundbreaking decision recognizing a constitutional right to education and literacy.

Under the settlement, Whitmer must propose legislation to fund literacy-related programs and other initiatives for the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The state must also provide $280,000 to be shared by seven students named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, to be used for a high-quality literacy program or other ways to further their education.

Whitmer will ask the Michigan Department of Education to advise school districts statewide on their strategies, initiatives and programs to improve literacy. Special attention must be paid to reducing class, racial, and ethnic disparities.

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“Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read — obstacles they never should have faced,” Whitmer said in a statement. “In the future, I will remain committed to ensuring paths to literacy for children across Michigan.”

“Today’s settlement is a good start, but there’s more work to do to create paths to opportunity for our children,” she added.

The lawsuit was filed in 2016.

The complaint says that “literacy is fundamental to participation in public and private life and is the core component in the American tradition of education.”

“But 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,” the lawsuit said. “Michigan’s compulsory attendance laws require Plaintiffs to attend these schools, but they are schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions and lacking the most basic educational opportunities that children elsewhere in Michigan and throughout the nation take for granted.”

U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III dismissed the case in 2018, asserting the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee a fundamental right to literacy.

But on April 23, the appeals court said students at poor performing, dilapidated Detroit schools are entitled to a basic minimum education under the U.S. Constitution. The decision could lead to millions of dollars in new spending.

The Republican-led Legislature recently asked the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the 2-1 ruling. It said managing K-12 education is a job for state and local officials, not the federal judiciary.

Whitmer, a Democrat, replaced Republican Gov. Rick Snyder as a defendant after being elected in 2018.

“The settlement opens up opportunities for students in Detroit,” said Jamarria Hall, a one of the plaintiffs. Hall graduated in 2017 from Osborn High School.

“Starting this journey four years ago, parents and students knew we wanted a better education, and now to really be heard for the first time means everything,” Hall said in a statement.

State Board of Education member Tiffany Tilley called the settlement “historical” and said she expects the board to receive updates and details from the state attorney general’s office.

“This is going to affect education in every ZIP code across America,” said Tilley, a graduate of Detroit’s Henry Ford High School. “Now, we need to make sure to find the funding to the change the structure of how we fund schools here in Michigan.”

Tilley said she’s concerned that education funding could be cut because the economy is suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Molly Sweeney, organizing director of the Detroit-based education organizing network 482Forward, said the next state budget should not include cuts to education and basic needs.

“I hope there are adequate resources for Detroit schools and reparations for Detroit students,” Sweeney said. “This is one first step to push our governor to find new revenue for our state in this moment.”

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Williams reported from West Bloomfield, Michigan.

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