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Settlement in lawsuit over Detroit school conditions; "right to read" suit moves ahead

A ceiling hole at Noble Elementary Middle-School in early 2016
Detroit Federation of Teachers
A ceiling hole at Noble Elementary Middle-School in early 2016

There was movement Thursday on two federal lawsuits filed over poor learning conditions in Detroit schools.

The American Federation of Teachers announced a settlement with the Detroit Public Schools over decrepit building conditions in some schools.

The settlementlays out a process for reporting, logging and prioritizing requests for building repairs, as well as timelines for following through.

It also sets up a five-member oversight committee tasked with enforcing the agreement

The AFT also supports another lawsuit, which claims conditions in some Detroit schools remain so bad, children are effectively denied an education, in violation of their constitutional rights.

That “right to read” lawsuit, filed last September, is founded on the premise that children in at least five Detroit schools “contain classrooms that have no teachers, no textbooks, or where no homework can be assigned from books that students do not have,” plaintiffs wrote. “Buildings where Plaintiffs are, for all intents and purposes, warehoused for seven hours a day impose their own grotesque barriers to learning and teaching, including classroom temperatures ranging from freezing to over 90 degrees, vermin, and unworkable toilets.”

Substantial improvement “just hasn’t happened” since the suit was filed, says former University of Michigan Law School Dean Evan Caminker. “The school year started, and the same problems were basically continuing.”

The defendants, all state officials including Gov. Snyder, want the case dismissed. They cite a number of grounds, including the fact that the state no longer directly controls the Detroit public schools through emergency managers, and that a similar “right to read” case was dismissed from state courts.

They also point to factors outside of their control, like students’ “intellectual limitations” and lack of “parental involvement.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Mark Rosenbaum calls that “offensive.”

“The state has no business creating a stigma of illiteracy for these children, that the American Dream should not be rationed based on zip code, race and class,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum argues that the district’s recent decision to cancel what remained of a district-wide remedial reading program because of an ongoing teacher shortage highlights the continuing problem.

“The very programs would have some promise of ameliorating some of these conditions, they’ve now discontinued. So the state’s going in the opposite direction when it comes to the children of Detroit.”

Plaintiffs filed paperwork fighting the state’s motion to dismissthe case in Detroit federal court Thursday. The state is expected to respond within weeks, and a judge could rule on whether the case proceeds early this year.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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