Michigan's Highland Park School District has been the source of fierce debate this year due to its financial difficulties and the appointments of state-imposed emergency managers. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is now taking action to make sure the district's academics are also part of the conversation.
On Thursday the organization filed a class-action lawsuit, the first of its kind, against the state of Michigan, state agencies overseeing public education and the Highland Park school system. They did so on behalf of eight students representing the roughly 1,000 children who attend the K-12 public school district.
The suit charges that those governmental bodies are not fulfilling obligations established in the Michigan Constitution and state law that require them to ensure students are meeting state literacy standards. Section 380.1278(8) of Michigan's revised school code mandates that students not scoring satisfactorily on 4th or 7th grade state assessment tests must be given reasonable assistance to bring them up to grade level within 12 months.
According to the ACLU of Michigan, the case is unique because it focuses on the fundamental right of students to receive a satisfactory education, rather than specific school conditions.
Less than 10 percent of district students in grades third through eight are proficient in reading in math, based on Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores cited by the organization. (See the 2008-2011 MEAP Scores here).
The 2012 Michigan Merit exam, an annual assessment given to 11th graders and eligible 12th graders, found that less than 10 percent of Highland Park students in these grades were proficient in reading or math.
The ACLU alleges that the district also suffers from a lack of up-to-date textbooks, a shortage of counselors and vice-principals, inadequate heating, filthy bathrooms and improperly secured buildings.
"I can tell you unequivocally that there is not a case in our collective history, which has so single-mindedly addressed a school system in such dire and tragic states," said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney and professor of constitutional and civil rights law at the University of Michigan, speaking at a Thursday press conference organized by the Michigan ACLU.
"These are the sort of results that we associate in the Deep South in the 30s and 40s. These are the sorts of results we associate today with impoverished Third World nations."
Michelle Johnson is a lifelong resident of Highland Park. Her daughter is entering her junior year of high school, but is reading five to seven levels beneath her grade.
"My daughter is ashamed of where she is," said Johnson. "She wouldn't speak out until the other day to tell that she couldn't do the work or read or write."
Johnson got involved in the suit because she felt school and state officials weren't listening to her, even though she had attended numerous public meetings on the state of the school district.
She told The Huffington Post she just wants a decent education for her daughter and other children in the district.
"I want them to learn like everybody else's child, and I shouldn't have to run to a different district, when I can get it in my district."
Falling enrollment was one of the factors that caused the state to intervene in the district earlier this year. A review team sent to investigate the district found that enrollment had declined 58 percent between the 2006 and 2011 school years. It found evidence of serious budgetary problems and declared Highland Park Schools to be in a state of financial emergency.
Their findings persuaded Gov. Rick Snyder to appoint Jack Martin to take over management of the district in January. Martin was replaced in May by Sucessor-Emergency Manager Joyce Parker. In June Parker and her predecessor Martin drafted a plan to convert the district in a public-private academy system operated by a charter school firm.
The ACLU maintains, however, that their lawsuit isn't motivated by any of these political considerations.
"This is not a pro or anti-charter case. … This is not a pro or anti-teacher case. This is not a pro or anti-emergency manager case," said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU at Thursday's press conference. "This case, simply put, is about the right of children to read, a right guaranteed under the constitution and laws of this state."
Moss said the lawsuit predates the recent appointment of emergency managers that followed last year's passage of Public Act 4.
"We really began investigating the conditions of the schools several years ago and spent a lot of time trying to think through and look at where the worst conditions were," she said. "We eventually settled on the bottom 5 percent [performing state schools] and then at that point just started doing the research and legwork to verify what we saw."
Moss called Highland Park Schools "a canary in the coalmine" and said that similar issues could be found in River Rouge, Pontiac or any of the other districts in the state's bottom performing schools.
The ACLU of Michigan is requesting an immediate response from the state that includes research-based methods of instruction, highly trained educators and administrators, a system to measure progress, new textbooks and other educational materials and a clean safe learning environment.
The Michigan Department of Education said they had not yet received a lawsuit from the ACLU and respectfully declined to comment.
"We consistently have been counseled by our state Attorney General’s office to not comment on pending litigation, and we will follow that advice should we be served with a lawsuit," said Department of Education Spokesman Martin Ackley, in a statement to The Huffington Post.