A lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court Thursday, but it could be a month before a judge rules whether it can proceed.
The suit, filed in September on behalf of seven Detroit students, argues that Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials have deprived city students of their right to literacy by not spending adequately on local schools.
The 136-page complaint paints a bleak picture of life in the city’s schools, describing condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, students left to grieve without support, and classrooms without qualified teachers. The suit claims that these conditions make learning difficult in Detroit schools — a conclusion that a recent study bears out.
Snyder petitioned in November to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the condition of Detroit’s schools isn’t the state’s fault. The hearing today focused largely on that question, and the judge in the case, Stephen Murphy, said he would rule within 30 days on whether to let the case move forward.
State-appointed emergency managers ran Detroit’s schools directly for six years, until one year ago, and union leaders issued a statement Thursday laying the blame for local schools’ struggles solidly on state officials.
“The state created these poor learning conditions, and now Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette are further abdicating their responsibility to the children of Detroit by moving to dismiss this case,” said the leaders of the Detroit, Michigan, and national chapters of the American Federation of Teachers. “All these children and families are asking for is what we owe all families — great, well-resourced public schools where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and children are engaged.”
If the case does move forward, it could take years to resolve. School funding equity cases — currently pending in more than a dozen states, including Tennessee and New Mexico, where arguments ended earlier this month — typically take years to wend their way through the courts.
Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti, the first superintendent hired by the new locally elected school board, told Chalkbeat that Michigan does need to spend education dollars differently.
“I don’t think the state has recognized that simply providing equal funding or near-equal funding for all children in the state of Michigan on a per pupil basis does not go deep enough and broad enough to address the issues and challenges that children in Detroit face,” he said. “There is a need for a deeper weighted formula that recognizes [special education] status, [English Language Learner] status and poverty. That would give educators in Detroit more confidence that the state is supporting the children of Detroit differently than those throughout the state.”
But he said he found the lawsuit’s core allegation, that the state had deprived city students of a right to literacy, more complicated. “It’s not the state’s responsibility in and of itself,” Vitti said. “The school district, community partners, teachers, the faith-based community, the business community — everyone has to put shoulder to the wheel when talking about literacy.”