In a shocking decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the state has no legal responsibility to provide a quality education to every child. The case centered on the Highland Park school district, where achievement was lagging; the state turned the entire district over to a for-profit charter operator that had no track record of improving low-performng schools. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed the suit.
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.
At the time the state of Michigan decided to privatize the Highland Park schools and turn them over to the Leona Group, some saw it as a last-ditch effort to save the district from its debt.
The Wall Street Journal wrote in 2012:
Phoenix-based Leona will receive $7,110 per pupil in state funding, plus an as-yet-undetermined amount of federal funds for low-income and special education students. In addition, the Highland Park district will pay Leona a $780,000 annual management fee.
Unions have been sidelined after the district’s entire professional staff was laid off, as allowed by the state emergency law, but teachers can apply for jobs with Leona. Leona has budgeted about $36,000 a year for Highland Park teachers on average, the company said—compared with almost $65,000 a year the teachers received in the 2010-11 school year.
In a typical school it takes over, Leona has hired back about 70% of the teachers, the company said. Leona also will lease the Highland Park district’s buildings.
Under the five-year contract with Leona, the new city charter board will monitor the company’s progress in improving student performance.
Leona runs 54 schools in five states. Students in almost half of them fail state academic benchmarks. But of its 22 Michigan schools, 19 meet the mark, Leona officials said.
Leona Chief Executive William Coats said the company had no incentive to cut corners in Highland Park. “As we build equity, we give that back to the schools,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting when an audience member raised doubts about the for-profit approach. “We’re trying to manage this so you [the district] stay in business.”
Highland Park is where Henry Ford opened his first assembly line and Chrysler Corp. built its original headquarters. It has suffered the same ills as Detroit, its larger neighbor: an exodus of auto jobs, depressed housing stock and a surge in crime.
The city, which spreads across three square miles, lost nearly 30% of its population from 2000 to 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Nearly half of the 11,776 residents live below the poverty line.
Students and parents complain of dirty classrooms, exposed wiring in the schools, rationed textbook and swimming pools—once used by powerhouse swim teams—that now sit drained of water.
John Holloway, the school board president, said the problems became a “runaway train that we could not stop.”
As the situation worsened, the state gave the district a $4 million loan in July 2011 and advanced it $450,000 more earlier this year just to meet its payroll.
A union-backed initiative that could go to voters statewide in November seeks to repeal the emergency-manager law under which Ms. Parker was appointed to run the district. The law had been strengthened in 2011 by the governor.
Glenda McDonald, a Highland Park resident and laid-off teacher, said that the problem was not entirely the fault of the community. “The disinvestment in our communities led to the disinvestment in our schools, and that’s why people left,” she said. “We had nothing to offer them.”
After Leona took over, things did not go well. Enrollment dropped sharply. The company closed the district’s high school. It agreed to waive its fee for one year because of a lingering deficit.