Protesters plan a ‘car parade’ outside Whitmer’s house, pushing her to quickly settle the right-to-read lawsuit

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference on COVID-19 in Michigan on May 11, 2020. Submitted/State of Michigan

Protesters are planning a car parade past Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s house tomorrow, part of an ongoing effort to pressure Whitmer to settle the Detroit “right to read” lawsuit.

“Our children cannot read as they should,” said Larry Simmons, a Detroit pastor and director of the Brightmoor Alliance, an advocacy group, during an online press conference Tuesday. “I call upon you to settle this lawsuit now. Keep your word.”

A federal panel on the Sixth Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled last month that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to basic literacy, laying down a major new legal landmark and handing a victory to the Detroit students who argued in the 2016 lawsuit that they’d been deprived of an education by the poor condition of the city’s schools.

The students’ supporters are eager for Whitmer to settle the case out of court. Observers say the ruling would likely be overturned if it were reviewed by other appeals judges or by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are not commenting on pending litigation other than to say what the governor has always affirmed: every child is born with a right to a quality education,” said Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for Whitmer.

Protesters angry about Whitmer’s stay-home-order gathered outside her house last month.

Lawyers representing the Detroit students and the state are in settlement discussions. The Detroit district, which is also involved in the talks, is pushing for a range of possible settlement terms:

  • A commitment to equitable school funding.
  • Funding for literacy initiatives.
  • Facilities improvements.
  • Elimination of the Financial Review Commission that oversees the district, which was created as part of a state aid package in 2016. 
  • The ability to raise funds from local taxpayers, lost as part of the state aid package.
  • Assurance that the state can no longer impose emergency management without the consent of voters in any district.

On Tuesday afternoon, members of the State Board of Education, who are defendants in the lawsuit, voted 6-2 to support the appeals court decision. The vote went along party lines, with six Democrats voting yes and the two Republicans voting no.

The appeals court “took on the responsibility to make sure those kids are literate, are educated,” said Tiffany Tilley, a Democrat from Southfield who is a Detroit native. “This case … is historical for every child and every zip code.”

The board heard from Jamarria Hall, one of the plaintiffs who has been the face of the lawsuit. Hall was a high school student in the district when the lawsuit was filed; he now attends college.

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“If we lack the resources and the proper facilities to learn in, how can we be productive students? How can we go out in the world to be productive citizens?”

Tom McMillin, a Republican from Oakland Township, warned that a vote to support the decision will be a vote to have a federal judge make decisions about how to ensure Detroit students have a basic right to an education.

“What is going to happen is a George W. Bush appointee will become the de facto emergency manager over a significant portion of the Detroit school system. That’s what you will be authorizing. You are authorizing the removal of local control.”

He and Nikki Snyder, a Republican from Dexter, also argued the money to ensure that right could come at the expense of other school districts in the state.

Simmons said protestors participating in the car parade, scheduled for noon, will maintain social distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Education activists with 482Forward, an education advocacy group in Detroit, say they haven’t heard from Whitmer about her plans to settle. During her 2018 campaign, Whitmer said repeatedly that she believed there is a Constitutional right to literacy, and that she supported the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Those promises won Whitmer the support of black voters in Detroit in 2018, and her handling of the coronavirus crisis has also won her some fans. “When it’s all over, you invited to the cookout,” the Detroit rapper GMac Cash said in a song that went viral earlier this month.

Dawn Wilson-Clark, a Detroit parent and organizer with 482Forward, said Whitmer still needs to deliver on her promises to families in the city.

“I don’t care what the song says. You’re not invited to the cookout until you settle this.”

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