How will Detroit Public Schools and its families bounce back after the pandemic? We’re exploring all the angles of what lies ahead.
DETROIT — Students in Detroit’s public school system already learn in unsafe and unfit environments, according to a lawsuit filed against Michgan’s then-governor Republican Rick Snyder in 2016. Uncertainty seems to be the term of day as students, teachers and administrators await more decisions on the future of the city’s public school system.
Now, they deal with a pandemic. So how are they making it through?
Long before tech companies and artists claimed Detroit as home, the city was known as a jewel of the Midwest. With history that predates the founding of America by a generation, the city attracted the wealthy and working class, alike. Whether “have” or “have not,” Michiganders below the thumb were educated in a system that took care with the young minds that would one day grow to contribute to local life as adults.
Prior to the infamous Uprising of 1967, Detroit Public Schools served mostly white students. Due to the racism of the day, white students were allowed to attend schools outside of their assigned zone area to avoid Black people. For example, according to the recorded history on DPSCD’s website, “a liberal school transfer policy allowed white students zoned to Miller [High School] to attend Eastern [High School], which left Miller as the de facto, if not de jure, African-American High School.”
Sanctioned abandonment of schools put the district on a path to declining enrollment and school performance over the next two generations, and eventually to the creation of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD).
Sirrita Darby is a five-year veteran DPSCD teacher and executive director of Detroit Heals Detroit, a student-led organization with a mission to “foster healing justice for Detroit youth in which they are able to transform their pain into power,” according to its website. She says the state of affairs in the district over the last several years didn’t make sense to her.
“So the students are required to learn, but the teachers aren’t required to teach them? It’s so mind boggling to me,” says the Detroit native.
The 2016 lawsuit brought against state officials by seven Detroit students argued that public school students in the state have a fundamental right to literacy. The plaintiffs said they were denied that right because of the state’s purposeful exclusion of Detroit from the state’s education system.
Rick Snyder called the lawsuit an attempt to destroy the “American tradition of democratic control of schools,” when it was filed in a Detroit federal court.
In 2018, U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III dismissed the suit.
That decision has since been overturned by a federal appellate court, granting DPSCD students a constitutional right — though not yet a path — to literacy.
The court sent the case back to justice Murphy in Detroit who dismissed the initial lawsuit against state officials that claimed “slum-like conditions” and a district “functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.”
Judges Eric Clay and Jane Stranch in a 2-1 decision from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that, “a basic minimum education should be recognized as a fundamental right.”
The Fight Isn’t Over
Now Michigan lawmakers are stepping in and asking a federal appeals court to set aside the groundbreaking decision that recognized a constitutional right to education and literacy in Detroit schools. Separately, state school board members Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder, both Republicans, also want the case reconsidered.
The House and Senate are controlled by Republicans, who said managing K-12 education is a job for state and local officials, not the federal judiciary. Lawmakers are asking the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reopen the case and start over.
“No one would say that the Detroit public schools are performing at the level they should,” said John Bursch, an attorney who filed the petition for the House and Senate. “But the answers for solving that problem cannot come from federal court supervision based on the creation of fundamental rights that no one would have recognized in the text of the [constitution’s] due process clause.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer inherited the lawsuit from former Gov. Snyder and is now named as a defendant in his place. It’s not known if Whitmer will ask the court to take a second look, but the community is urging her to protect the students’ best interests.
“Many people forget that if she doesn’t settle the case then it could get returned [to justice Murphy’s court],” Darby says. “This isn’t the end. It’s one step toward victory but it isn’t the end.”
Advocacy for the governor’s support is also coming from within the district. The DPSCD president and superintendent penned a letter to Gov. Whitmer asking for her support. In it, they ask her to exercise her power to settle the issue, stating in part:
“We respect your advocacy for traditional public education throughout the state and in Detroit. However, we encourage you to stop listening to attorneys and rely on your instincts. Although the State made small steps in the right direction through the creation of Detroit Public Schools Community District (“DPSCD”) with an empowered locally elected School Board and the restructuring of DPS’ debt, the journey to accountability and investment is not complete. More importantly, the State has not addressed the legacy and current inequities perpetuated within its K-12 funding structure or the deteriorating school building infrastructure that was neglected under state control.
Governor, now is the time for you to leverage this decision to make inroads in the historic and current inequity that holds back the potential of our students.”
Continuing Through Pandemic
In the meantime, the district is still preparing for a new school year during a global pandemic with no realistic hopes of a widely-distributed vaccine by then; especially to the demographic the DPSCD currently serves.
It became apparent that many students in the district did not have access to technology and the internet to allow them to continue learning remotely. While the fate of students’ constitutional right to literacy seems to be in limbo, private donations have come in to the tune of $23 million to close the tech gap.
And Darby says the donations are indicators that help could have come before now.
“I think DPS partnering with all of these companies shows that the tech divide never had to be a ‘thing,’” says the Michigan State doctoral student. “It’s not really an achievement gap. It’s an opportunity gap. And these students didn’t have the opportunity.”
A group of local humanitarian foundations and businesses includes the DTE Energy, DPSCD Kellogg, and Skillman Foundations, Quicken Loans and General Motors. Together they aim to give some 51,000 students a computer or tablet with high-speed LTE internet connectivity. The plan is for every DPSCD K-12 student to receive their new device before the end of this school year. According to the district’s calendar, that’s June 18.
The district was not available to confirm the status of students’ tech deliveries.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.