Monday, November 21, 2016

MI: State Tells Students To Get Lost (If you can read this, don't thank Gov. Snyder)

Last September, seven Detroit school children filed suit against the state of Michigan for depriving those children of an actual education. The state's defense is... well, not encouraging.

Let's dispense with the obvious first. While I don't have a lot of background on the case, I'm going to guess that the seven school children didn't save their lunch money and then put in a call to California law firm Public Counsel. Nor do I think these seven precocious urchins said, "Perhaps you could use our situation to establish a heretofore unestablished constitutional right to an education in the US, using our case to break new grounds in jurisprudence. Can we be done in time to watch Spongebob?" One actual fun note though-- while most of the plaintiffs are public school students, one is a student from a now-defunct charter. At any rate, I guess this is how important lawsuits are filed these days.

Here's what one plaintiff, Jamarria Hall, has to say:

I have friends who can’t read, but it’s not because they aren’t smart, it’s because the State has failed them. I feel like Governor Snyder doesn’t care about me or my friends. We stood up for ourselves and wrote letters asking him to fix our school. But he never gave us a response.

And here's what the class action lawsuit has to say:

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. 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 also contains some plainer language:

Instead of providing students with a meaningful education and literacy, the state simply provides buildings — many in serious disrepair — in which students pass days and then years with no opportunity to learn to read, write or comprehend,

Lawyers on the case include Evan Caminker, former dean of the University of Michigan Law school. Their basic argument, building on Brown v Board of Education is that the students have a constitutional right to an education, specifically, to an education that produces literacy.

Last week the state and Governor Rick Snyder fired back with a sixty-three page motion to dismiss the case. Their arguments are several, each just as appalling as the last:

* "Claims laid out by plaintiffs — including deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures — go far beyond mere access to education." Right-- because even if you are in a collapsing building surrounded by rats and without a teacher or books, that doesn't mean you don't have access to education. Somehow? Through the ether maybe?

* This suit constitutes “attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.” This is a particularly hilarious argument from the state of Michigan, where the legislature has come up with a variety of ways to destroy democratic local control of both schools and entire cities. Detroit schools have been run by an "emergency manager" since 2009, though they have currently been upgraded to a "transition manager," but like many various previously-democratic bastions of local control, they have seen the state emergency manage them right out of democracy (yes, it was an emergency manager that brought us the Flint water crisis). Governor Snyder also tried the Education Achievement Authority, Michigan's version of the Achievement School District that failed in Tennessee. It failed in Michigan, too. But it did completely override the local authority of democratically-elected school boards. For the state of Michigan and its governor to paint themselves as champions of democratic local control requires big brass cojones the size of Great Lakes tankers. This is the fox speaking out in favor of better henhouses. It is Grade A baloney.

* But let's get right down to it. Students, says the state of Michigan, have no fundamental right to literacy. I don't even know how you follow that up. We provide schools just as a favor, but we don't expect them to actually do anything? We provide schools because the voters expect us to, but the minute their backs are turned we drop that whole education thing like a hot, smelly rock? How does that work as a state slogan? Michigan: If you want to read this sign, that's not our problem.

* Also, just for extra fun, the state threw in a dash of, "Hey, we don't actually run these schools (except for the ones that we took over), so it's not our fault."

I suppose they could have also thrown in, "Shut up! You didn't provide literacy education!"

But doesn't this just make Michigan look great. Michigan, where non-wealthy non-white folks aren't entitled to an education, to non-toxic drinking water, to much of anything.

Look, there's no question that Michigan and Detroit face some tough financial struggles. But damn-- how can you just keep going to the solution of, "We'll let all the poor people just go pound sand. It's hard to run this city and this state, so we'll stop running or financing the parts that don't really affect us." Not one of the officials responsible for the ugly mess that is Detroit schools would send their own children into these schools, but they will now fight tooth and nail their legislative and bureaucratic right to force Other People's Children into those wretched, squalid schools. How any of these people get out of bed each morning without being crippled by the weight of their own shame is a mystery to me.



  1. This, from Dan Rather:

  2. That is life in a Republican gerrymandered state. As long as businesses receive their tax abatements, the wealthy white state is good. The state has been in charge of Detroit's schools for over a decade and is now working to dismantle it. Have to get money the district somehow owes the state so the legislature can use it to help build a hockey arena. What a cess pool, sad that I still have to live there.

  3. Peter, you could spend a month on the mess that is education in Detroit. The city is a hodgepodge of various schools. It is a very "choicy" city. I teach in an inner ring suburb and apparently the main choice is to go to a school not in Detroit. Any type of school.

    The reformers love talking New Orleans but never talk Detroit. It's because Detroit is the worst case scenario for school choice theories. All the choices are terrible and shifting. Charters there are so obviously profit centers. Schools open and close willy-nilly. Some neighborhoods don't really have a school in some cases. (Charters like to be where the real estate is more promising for appreciation. Michigan is the for-profit center of the ed reform universe.)

  4. I just got back from parent/teacher conferences for both of my children. I would like to sue Howard County Public Schools (MD) for educational malpractice and depriving my children of a decent public education. Let me tell you that Common Bore is alive and well here in the state of MD. I am so angry right now and so sad for my children that I can't even think straight.

  5. Thanks, Peter. Sadly, it's just as bleak as you write here. And with Betsy DeVos taking over the Dept of Ed we'll be bring the Detroit approach to the whole nation.