A string of Michigan state officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, were slapped this week with a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of students in Detroit’s five most under-performing schools. In it, plaintiffs alleged that “slum-like conditions” in the Detroit Public School Community District have robbed them of fundamental learning opportunities. The lawsuit asks for both improvements to the school system as a whole, and for specific opportunities for the students and their classmates to catch up. It is being called the first federal lawsuit of its kind.
“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,” the suit claims. It later alleges that “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.”
Business Insider reports that all the student plaintiffs are either black or Latinx.
Over the course of over 100 pages, the lawsuit cites faulty and damaged equipment, subpar teaching material, overcrowding and—in a particularly alarming example of school understaffing—alleges that a middle school student was forced to become a de-facto math teacher because a real one wasn’t around:
In the 2015-16 school year, the seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher left several weeks after the start of school due to frustration with large class sizes and lack of support. He was temporarily replaced by a paraprofessional and then a special education teacher. Eventually, the highest performing eighth grade student was asked to take over teaching both seventh and eighth grade math, while the paraprofessional remained in the room to assist with classroom management. This student taught both math classes for a month.
Elsewhere, the suit describes the shocking state of a schoolyard playground:
One of the playground slides is disconnected at the base so it shifts around, and the other has cracks with sharp pieces of plastic sticking out. Multiple students have sliced or otherwise injured themselves while playing. Students also find bullets, used condoms, sex toys, and dead vermin on the playground, although teachers try to arrive early to clean the playground themselves.
Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Columbia University professor of law and educational practice Michael Rebell pointed out that education rights cases are typically filed in state court—where they succeed around 60% of the time—rather than federally. In the case of this particular lawsuit, “this is not something somebody threw together with 10 pages of assorted allegations,” Rebell told the paper. “I’m sure all their research here is pretty solid.”
The plaintiffs are being represented pro bono by the Public Counsel law firm. They are also represented by Sidley Austin LLP, Miller Cohen PLC, University of Michigan Law School Professor Evan Caminker, and University of California, Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky
A press release put out by Pubic Counsel to announce the suit asks simply “the foolproof test as to whether the schools in our Complaint afford access to literacy is a simple one – would Governor Snyder send his children to any of these schools?”
Also named in the suit is the state board of education, as well as other officials whose positions relate to Michigan’s education system. Board of Education president John Austin objected to the board’s having been named in the suit, telling the Detroit Free Press that they have long advocated for increased education funding from Michigan’s executive and legislative branch.
“It’s the Legislature that holds the purse strings, and the governor who proposes budgets,” he said.
Additionally, a spokesperson from the Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget—also named in the suit—told Business Insider that the department doesn’t respond to pending litigation. I am currently awaiting a reply to requests for comment from Governor Snyder’s office.
In May, Detroit teachers staged a two-day “sick out” that closed 94 of district’s 97 public schools after learning they might not be paid the following month. And in January, a similar action closed dozens of schools as teachers protested deteriorating classroom conditions.