The Michigan ACLU has taken the unprecedented step of filing a class action lawsuit in July against the Highland Park School District, the state of Michigan, and other governmental entities for failing to teach the students in the Highland Park School District how to read. Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, said “This is not a pro or anti-charter case. . . This is not a pro or anti-teacher case. This is not a pro or anti-emergency manager case. This case, simply put, is about the right of children to read, a right guaranteed under the constitution and laws of this state.”
The ACLU has carefully jockeyed to buttress its argument that the right to read is a civil right for the students in Michigan. Although the ACLU acknowledges that state courts have not recognized education as a fundamental right granted by the Constitution, the ACLU points out that the Supreme Court has referred to education as “not merely some governmental benefit which is indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation.” Additionally, the Michigan Supreme Court has declared that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” and the Michigan Constitution “imposes an obligation” on the state to offer a free public elementary and high school education.
The ACLU lawsuit additionally cites a little used Michigan law that dictates that remediation must be offered to students who fail 4th and 7th grade literacy standards. The law states: Excluding special education pupils, pupils having a learning disability, and pupils with extenuating circumstances as determined by school officials, a pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade [MEAP] (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.”
By any reasonable calculation, the Highland Park School Districts have failed abysmally to educate its students. It is no accident that the ACLU chose to target this district--Its three schools are rated among the lowest in the state. In the 2011-2012 school year, only 35% of 4th graders achieved a score of “proficient” or higher on the MEAP Reading test. The 7th graders fared much worse: only 25% of them scored “Proficient” or better on the MEAP. Whereas 87% of fourth graders lacked proficiency in math, an appalling 93% of 7th graders lacked proficiency. By 12th grade, 45% of seniors fail to graduate, while 90% fail at reading, 97% at math, and 100% at social studies and science. Yet despite the fact that most of its students are functionally and numerically illiterate, the district has failed to provide the “special assistance” ordered by state law to bring their students’ reading scores up, which are the cornerstone to the students’ overall learning and education.
The ACLU believes that the conditions in the Highland Park School District are so deleterious to its students that it is petitioning the court to take immediate action to rectify the situation by requesting a writ of mandamus. Under a writ of mandamus, a court can at any time order a state or other governing body to fulfill its legally required obligations, in this case, to teach its students how to read. A writ of mandamus is an extraordinary legal order because it circumvents the judicial process thereby explaining the reluctance of courts to issue them.
The Highland Park School District, which borders on Detroit and where Chrysler was once based, had boasted a strong middle class and good schools. However, like so many communities, its fortunes have declined precipitously. Enrollment has decreased by half since the mid 1990s, and it recently ran a more than $11 million deficit. Its situation had become so dire that Governor Rick Snyder intervened earlier this year and appointed an emergency manager to attempt to solve the financial mess in which the district has found itself immured. The emergency manager who has replaced the initial financial manager is looking to turn the schools over to an as yet unnamed charter school operator.
The ACLU’s suit is an effort to ensure that academics are part of the equation in the fixing of the school district. One of the ACLU attorneys, Mark Rosenbaum, said that other lawsuits have resulted in changes for school districts. A lawsuit filed in 2000 in California which claimed that students were not being given equal access to materials, school safety, and teachers resulted in better oversight of what was happening in the state’s schools. However, not everyone is rallying to the call of the ACLU. The head of the Michigan PTA said that schools can’t “be sued into success.” The ACLU’s lawsuit, according to the president of the PTA, will only serve as a distraction and not improve the schools. The editorial staff of The Detroit News feels that the state is currently doing everything it possibly can at this point to correct the situation in the Highland Park Schools. The blame for the debacle resides with the district, according to paper, and not the state.
There is clearly lots of blame to go around as to what went wrong in Highland Park. The school board, parents, teachers, unions, the state—the list is endless. But perhaps the lawsuit is what it will take to tip the balance and finally bring real improvement in the schools and real help to the district’s incredibly underserved and struggling students. No one knows how this lawsuit will play out in the courts, but it bears watching.