Michigan settles suit after landmark right-to-read ruling


WEST BLOOMFIELD — 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 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 also must 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.

The state also agreed to provide about $2.7 million to the district to fund literacy projects.

Education advocates have been trying for decades to win a case like this, said Derek W. Black, law professor at the University of South Carolina.

“The kids in Detroit finally won,” he said. “Now we have precedent. The principle in this case is so important to not only the children in Detroit but also to the hopes of children elsewhere.”

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

“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.

In 2017, only 7% of Detroit public school eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The percentage of Detroit students who performed at or above the NAEP proficient level in 2019 was 6%.

The complaint filed in 2016 says “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.

It describes the facilities as “schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions and lacking the most basic educational opportunities.”

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,” Jamarria Hall, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. Hall graduated in 2017 from Osborn High School.

Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney of the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel that represented the students, said the settlement “paves the way for the state of Michigan to fulfill its moral obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to children that have been denied a fair shake for far too long.”

State Board of Education member Tiffany Tilley called it a historic settlement.

“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.”

Associated Press reporter Dave Eggert contributed to this report.

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