Jamarria Hall can’t stomach walking into his high school on Detroit’s east side some days. The classrooms are hot, water fountains don’t work and only 2.2% of students last year achieved college-ready scores in reading and English.
“It doesn’t even feel like school,” said Hall, a senior at Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. “It makes my stomach hurt just walking into the facility, knowing we’re basically getting cheated – really, getting robbed – of education.”
A federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Tuesday aims to challenge Hall’s educational system by asserting a constitutional right to literacy, in what attorneys say is the first legal challenge of its kind in the US. The 133-page complaint says the state of Michigan has disinvested in education in Detroit so much that children lack fundamental access to literacy.
Hall, 16, said he has friends who can’t read “but it’s not because they aren’t smart, it’s because the state has failed them”.
Proficiency rates in core subject areas are near-zero at the schools where the seven students named in the complaint attend, the complaint says.
“Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of the opportunity under law project of Public Counsel, which is filing the lawsuit.
Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, who is not involved in the litigation, said he expects the lawsuit will make history, “much as Brown v Board of Education did”.
“The legal theory underlying the suit is both creative and rock-solid,” he said, “and Mark Rosenbaum’s legal team is nothing short of extraordinary.”
“If you think of Brown v Board as one shoe that dropped, this is the other shoe,” he said, “because though it eliminated, technically, inferior schools for blacks, and eliminated de jure segregation, it didn’t achieve one of its basic goals. And that is a decent educational opportunity for all kids, regardless of race, regardless of class, regardless of geography. That’s become a more elusive goal.”
The plaintiffs include students from five of the lowest-performing schools in the city’s system, which recently was overhauled before the start of the new year, after state lawmakers passed a $617m plan to restructure the district and shed its long-term debt. Teachers this year have waged large-scale protests over the prospect of working without pay and in subpar working conditions, though officials have recently touted improvements in building repairs.
The governor’s office said it doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. A spokesperson for Detroit’s school system said the district’s legal team hasn’t had time to review the case.
The lawsuit describes a public school system in Detroit that has experienced a precipitous decline under state oversight. Since 1999, Michigan has implemented various measures to restructure the governance of the system, including a string of appointed emergency managers tasked with overseeing the district’s finances. But in that timeframe, the lawsuit says, the state has “not addressed the root causes of its failures [with literacy] in any systematic or meaningful way”.
The lawsuit cites a list of complaints that have fostered the current environment in Detroit: the proliferation of charter schools, vast schools closures, and – as part of the overhaul this summer of the district – a new provision that authorizes the hiring of non-credentialed teachers. Insufficient staff poses additional challenges, too, the suit states.
At one school, co-counsel Kathryn Eidmann said an eighth0grade student handled teaching a seventh- and eighth-grade math class for a month because no teacher was available – a situation reported to the legal team by “numerous” teachers. And this week, Eidmann said she spoke with a student who started his school year with two classes that don’t have a teacher.
“During that period, he sits with a substitute in the ROTC classroom,” she said.
Eidmann said the case is the first in federal court to argue there is a right to access literacy under the US constitution’s 14th amendment. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a class-action lawsuit in state court on behalf of students in the city of Highland Park’s school system. That suit asserted Michigan had a constitutional obligation to educate students in Highland Park, which borders Detroit. A Michigan court of appeals panel, in 2014, rejected the claims in a 2-1 vote, and the state’s high court refused to hear the case.
While the federal case over Detroit’s public schools is the first to argue literacy is constitutionally protected, Eidmann said it’s “very well grounded” in US supreme court precedent. In the 1982 decision of Plyler v Doe, the justices struck down a Texas statute that excluded undocumented immigrant children from public education, and said a state may not “deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders”.
Detroit students, predominately low-income and children of color, meet the criteria of a “discrete class”, the lawsuit claims, and “have been excluded from the access to literacy that public education provides to other students in the state of Michigan”.
“These are schools in name only,” Eidmann said, “where students are sitting in the classrooms often with no books, often where there’s no teachers, often where there’s no pretense of literacy taking place. In that sense, they’re being denied a basic education.”
Though Rosenbaum’s other case in Highland Park failed at the state level, Tribe said the federal court system is a more appropriate vehicle to address the litany of issues cited in the lawsuit.
“It’s something that a life-tenured federal judge is likely to be much more comfortable with and willing to think through in great detail,” Tribe said.
Tribe also believed the lawsuit makes a sound use of the Plyler decision.
“Whether it is kids who through no fault of their own were brought to Texas as undocumented aliens at the age of two, or kids through no fault of their own were born and are growing up in Detroit,” he said, “the idea that saying, by the luck of the draw, you will never be equipped by society with the tools you need to achieve something that resembles the American Dream of upward mobility, that’s a fundamental departure from constitutional principle.”
The suit asks the federal court to provide relief that includes evidence-based literacy instruction in every grade level, along with addressing physical school conditions.
The five-count complaint names Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, as well as several state education officials, as defendants. The state department of education did not respond to a request for comment. The governor’s office and a spokesperson for Detroit’s school system both declined to comment.
Hall, the student at Osborn Evergreen Academy, said he has witnessed classmates act out to avoid reading in class, if a teacher calls on them. “They don’t want to get embarrassed,” he said. “They don’t want to feel dumb.”
“I don’t believe I’m as smart as I could have been, or I have enough knowledge or as much knowledge that I could’ve got … because we’ve missed out on so much opportunity,” he said. “Because of simple facts: that we don’t have enough books, or it’s hot in the classroom. Instead of worrying about learning we’re worried about the heat.” Indeed, Osborn was closed last week for a day due to extreme temperatures – and a lack of air conditioning in the building.
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