Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — In a blow to schoolchildren statewide, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled on Nov. 7 the State of Michigan has no legal obligation to provide a quality public education to students in the struggling Highland Park School District.
A 2-1 decision reversed an earlier circuit court ruling that there is a “broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children.” The appellate court said the state has no constitutional requirement to ensure schoolchildren actually learn fundamental skills such as reading — but rather is obligated only to establish and finance a public education system, regardless of quality. Waving off decades of historic judicial impact on educational reform, the majority opinion also contends that “judges are not equipped to decide educational policy.”
“This ruling should outrage anyone who cares about our public education system,” said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties of Michigan. “The court washes its hands and absolves the state of any responsibility in a district that has failed and continues to fail its children.”
The decision dismisses an unprecedented “right-to-read” lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan in July 2012 on behalf of eight students of nearly 1,000 children attending K-12 public schools in Highland Park, Mich. The suit, which named as defendants the State of Michigan, its agencies charged with overseeing public education and the Highland Park School District, maintained that the state failed to take effective steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level.
“Let’s remember it was the state that turned the entire district over to a for-profit charter management company with no track record of success with low performing schools,” said Moss. “It is the state that has not enforced the law that requires literacy intervention to children not reading at grade level. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure and maintain a system of education that serves all children.”
In a dissenting opinion, appellate court judge Douglas Shapiro accused the court of “abandonment of our essential judicial roles, that of enforcement of the rule of law even where the defendants are governmental entities, and of protecting the rights of all who live within Michigan’s borders, particularly those, like children, who do not have a voice in the political process.”
MEAP test results from 2012 painted a bleak picture for Highland Park students and parents. In the 2013-14 year, no fewer than 78.9 percent of current fourth graders and 73 percent of current seventh graders will require the special intervention mandated by statute. By contrast, 65 percent of then-fourth graders and 75 percent of then-seventh graders required statutory intervention entering the 2012-13 school year.
“We respect the decision of the court in this manner,” says Bill DiSessa with the Michigan Department of Education, “and commend all educators who work to get all children in Michigan reading at grade-level by the end of third grade.
“In a general sense, 3rd grade reading proficiency has been and will be one of this agency’s top priorities. Students learn to read by 3rd grade, and read to learn after that.”
Referring to State Superintendent Mike Flanagan’s July 2014 announcement he will use his authority to suspend low-performing charter school authorizers from chartering new schools, DiSessa says, “The department wants to make sure there’s accountability for all schools in the state be they public or charter.”