if at first

How a lawsuit filed today in Michigan could have consequences for schools across the country

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says failure to provide quality literacy instruction to all kids is a 'pernicious form of racial inequality.'

A new lawsuit says Michigan is trampling the right of Detroit children to learn to read.

The lawyers behind the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, say it is the first of its kind in the nation — and that its outcome could have national implications.

“It’s a national scandal the number of children in major school districts who cannot read, write or have critical thinking abilities,” said attorney Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, which is bringing the suit along with a team of law firms and legal advisors.

“Detroit is at the bottom,” he said, citing a national exam that shows Detroit students lagging behind their peers across the country. “But school districts all over the United States are leaving their kids in a state of functional illiteracy.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, names Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials as defendants and demands that they provide quality literacy instruction to every Detroit child.

The suit does not put a dollar amount on what it would cost to bring quality instruction to all Detroit children. But it does highlight severe problems facing Detroit schools — in charter schools as well as schools that are part of the main city school district and the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

“Where state officials … deny access to literacy to children of color from low-income families, they perpetuate the most pernicious form of racial inequality that government can inflict on its most vulnerable and deserving population,” Rosenbaum said.

A spokeswoman for Snyder said he doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

There’s nothing new about advocates suing states in an effort to rectify inequality in schools. Just last week, a Connecticut judge ordered that state to overhaul its school system after finding that children’s rights were being violated under that state’s constitution.

But efforts to bring a similar suit in Michigan on behalf of students in Highland Park hit a dead-end two years ago when the state courts ruled that Michigan’s Constitution “merely ‘encourages’ education, but does not mandate it.

Rosenbaum, who argued the Highland Park case, said the Highland Park ruling forced attorneys to turn to the federal courts.

“In jurisdictions where the state Constitution has been interpreted not to create a fundamental right of education, there’s no other place to go than to the federal courts,” he said.

Fund Students First

Memphis locals rally for extra school funding, demanding it be spent on student needs

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
About 40 education advocates met before today's commission meeting to rally for more direct funding for student needs.

Lobbying for how Shelby County Schools should spend an extra $12.7 million just granted from the county’s surplus, a crowd of 40 parents, students, and education advocates lined the glass-paneled doors of the county commission office today and demanded the money be used to “fund students first.”

But after the commission voted to use the funds only for one-time expenses instead of recurring costs, it is unclear that the advocates’ demands will be met.

Among the crowd was Brenda Crawford, a former student at Georgian Hills Middle, where she said she’s had “firsthand experience with ripped textbooks, leaky roofs, permanent subs, lack of technology, and cut programs.”

Now a rising sophomore at Trezevant High School, Crawford joined Campaign for School Equity’s Student Advocacy Program to push for better college preparation.

“If we get more funding for health specialists and AP classes, then our academic growth can go higher and then kids can have a better learning experience,” she said.

Participating organizations included Stand for Children Tennessee, Campaign for School Equity, Tennessee Charter School Center, Shelby County Young Democrats, the Memphis Grassroots Organizing Coalition, Memphis Education Fund, Memphis LIFT, Catholic peace group Pax Christi, and grassroots organization Gray Panthers. Leaders in these groups know the power of collective action. The last time they stood together, the commission approved a $22 million boost for local schools.

“Partnership is obviously really important,” said Carl Schneider, community organizer for Stand for Children. “I think sometimes these education advocacy groups are seen as really disparate, and funding for our schools is something everyone can really rally behind.”

District leaders originally planned to use the funds for additional services such as behavioral specialists, workforce training, school resource officers, and school counselors.

“Our schools need every one of those things,” said Daniel Henley, a pastor at Journey Christian Church. “And I think this $12.7 million is just a start… Yes to behavioral specialists, yes to guidance counselors – we need them all.”

But some parents are wary that the money may not be spent responsibly, and they urged each other to hold school leaders accountable.

“I don’t want you to make more administrative positions, or make more offices,” said Mahalia Brown, whose son just graduated from Memphis Business Academy. “Make sure the money goes to the kids, to the teachers, to people who actually need it, not just administration.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis LIFT, said she wants the money to go to efforts that tackle adverse childhood experiences as well as special education and facilities fees for charter schools. Her biggest wish, though, was that the money not go to waste.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Commissioner Eddie Jones, a supporter of the extra funding, talks with Memphis LIFT parents before the meeting.

“If you got all that money before, and now you’re coming back asking for more money, you’re just throwing money at things and ain’t nothing happening,” she said. “You don’t give kids $100 to go to the mall and they come back with a pack of candy and all their money is gone.”

Commissioners Van Turner and Eddie Jones are both graduates of Memphis public schools. At the pre-meeting rally, they echoed support for additional funding – and for spending it wisely.

“Funding education and funding education properly are the greatest public safety platform or plan that we can have,” Turner said.

If the commission can come back with a plan to make a “smart dollar investment” in its local public schools, said state representative Raumesh Akbari, then political groups like the Shelby County Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators will have renewed momentum.

“You’ll give us the credibility when we go into this new administration in 2019 and we talk about sending some state dollars down to match those county dollars,” he said.

Budget approved

County approves more money for Memphis schools, but skirts obligation to match it next year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Eddie Jones led the county commission's budget committee this year as Shelby County Schools compromised on a deal to close its budget gap for the 2018-19 school year.

Shelby County leaders have approved a request for $12.7 million for Memphis schools, but, unlike in years past, the district is not guaranteed to get all of that again next year.

The decision to approve the budget sets in motion an action that meets the district’s needs for now, but prevents each of the county’s school systems from fully benefiting from the county’s expected surplus in tax revenue.

That’s because about half of that money will go toward one-time costs. This is important because unless a district’s student population declines, state law requires the county to pay local districts at least as much as the previous year for ongoing expenses. But the county is under no obligation to carry over payment for one-time expenses such as textbooks or furniture.

The full commission wanted to approve the entire $12.7 million for Shelby County Schools and earmark that money for ongoing expenses. The district’s original plan was to use the money for costs such as hiring more school resource officers and reading specialists, improving the district’s workforce training classes, and adding more advanced courses.

But Mayor Mark Luttrell’s administration, which is advocating for a property tax cut, only wanted to approve $6.1 million. David Reaves, a commissioner and former school board member, suggested that some of that money be used for one-time costs.

So, in an unusual move, commissioners compromised by approving $6.1 million for continuing expenses, but signing off on the rest for one-time expenses only. That’s money the county is not required by the state to approve again next year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson praised the commission’s vote as “creative” to make ends meet even though their first choice was rejected.

“At the end of the day, we obviously want more dollars in that category because we have great needs, but we also know there’s a balancing act the commission has,” he said after the meeting. “I think it was a good resolution to a very complex situation.”

Exactly what that one-time payment will go toward is still being finalized, said Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance. The board must rework some of the budget because the district can’t use money for one-time expenses to pay for ongoing needs. School board members meet Tuesday for a work session and are expected to discuss it then.


Also as part of the commission’s vote on the district’s budget, a plan to fund preschool for low-income families was also approved. Read more in our story from last week.


The county is expecting up to $20 million extra in property taxes, which sparked the discussion on where it would go. Shelby County Schools plans to use $49 million of its savings account to pay for additional positions and programs, such as behavior specialists and school counselors, and adding American Way Middle School to the district’s Innovation Zone for chronically low-performing schools.

If the additional $6 million had been approved in the way Shelby County Schools originally requested, all seven districts in the county would have locked in more resources for years to come.

About 40 people representing six advocacy organizations rallied before the county commission meeting to push for a larger chunk of the extra funding to go to schools. As commissioners discussed the proposal, they applauded the smooth process.

“We put this thing together and got an agreement on it,” said Commissioner Eddie Jones.