case closed

Attorneys in literacy lawsuit plan to appeal federal judge’s ‘disappointing’ dismissal

PHOTO: Jammaria Hall
Jammaria Hall, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs who has said he was cheated of his education, sits at Osborn High School.

The attorney representing seven Detroit students, parents, and teachers in a lawsuit accusing the state of violating students’ right to access to literacy is going to appeal a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit, filed in September 2016, claimed poor conditions in Detroit schools led to Detroit’s main district having the nation’s lowest literacy rate.

The students and their families plan to appeal the ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a 40-page decision handed down late Friday, U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III rejected the state’s claims that it had no responsibility for the conditions of Detroit schools, and held that “educational responsibilities begin at the state level” and that state officials “effectively control the schools.”

He said that “when a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury — and so does society,” but said literacy is not a right. Murphy said in the ruling the question of a constitutional right to literacy and a basic education should not be decided by any one court and should be supported by a number of Supreme Court decisions.

The state’s attorneys sought to have the lawsuit dismissed and asked the judge to reject “an attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”

“The court got it tragically wrong when it characterized access to literacy as a privilege, instead of a right held by all children so that they may better their circumstances and meaningfully participate in our political system,” Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney representing the student plaintiffs, said in a statement Monday.

The 136-page complaint revealed shocking allegations of condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, and a lack of pens, paper — even toilet paper.

The plaintiffs asked for literacy reforms, qualified teaching staff, basic instructional materials and safe school conditions that don’t interfere with students’ learning. In May and June, the main district’s schools dismissed early because of extreme heat. Late last month, the district issued a report saying it would cost a staggering $500 million to repair its buildings, money the district doesn’t have.

“Friday’s decision is as deeply disappointing, as is having to file a lawsuit in the first place to ensure that the State of Michigan denies no child the opportunity to thrive in schools worthy of

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says failure to provide quality literacy instruction to all kids is a ‘pernicious form of racial inequality.’

their desire to learn,” Rosenbaum of the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the nation’s largest public interest law firm, said.

Rosenbaum added that children in affluent communities don’t have to attend schools without books and attempt to learn in such poor conditions, and that he will continue to fight for Detroit students to have their day in court.

The City of Detroit, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Literacy Association, and community groups such 482Forward filed briefs supporting the suit.

A spokeswoman for 482Forward, a citywide education coalition, was disappointed in the ruling.

“The judge is agreeing these disparities exist,” said Wytrice Harris, who has taught and tutored students. “But he is saying he can’t do anything about it.”

The governor’s office and the families represented in the suit did not respond to requests for comment.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.