Thomas Pedroni of Wayne State University sent the following urgent message for readersof this blog.

Professor Pedroni writes:

“In 2016, seven Detroit school children and their parents joined together as plaintiffs to sue the State of Michigan for depriving them of what they deemed to be their basic right— the right to access literacy in minimally sufficient learning conditions. The plaintiffs, along with the vast majority of Detroit school children, had endured years of worsening conditions in the district— exploding class sizes, dilapidating and rat-infested schools, freezing or searing classroom temperatures, classrooms with no teachers and no books, profit-driven experimentation by self interested ed tech companies— all during a time of direct and unchecked control of the district  by a string of state-imposed emergency managers.

“The students’ class action lawsuit, brought pro bono by California law firm Public Counsel, was dismissed in 2018 by Judge Stephen Murphy of the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit. Judge Murphy argued that although students were inarguably being subjected to what he called deplorable learning conditions, and although literacy was clearly necessary for the full enjoyment of life in the United States today, there was no constitutional right to access literacy. The students  immediately filed an appeal.

“Candidate Gretchen Whitmer campaigned for Michigan Governor in part on an agenda of strengthening the state’s public schools. She explicitly addressed the lawsuit in interviews, arguing that, “Despite what the federal court said, despite what Bill Schuette and Governor Snyder say, I believe every child in this state has a constitutional right to literacy.” In the fall, an independent audit of the state of the district’s buildings concluded that an investment of at least $500 million would be required to bring the city’s schools, which had simply been neglected during the period of state emergency management, to minimally acceptable condition.

“But on Friday, the administration of newly elected Governor Whitmer submitted the state’s brief in response to the plaintiffs’ ongoing appeal. According to the brief, all of the parties named as defendants in the filing, including the Governor, the state superintendent, and the elected State Board of Education, asked the court to dismiss the appeal on mootness of grounds. The defendants now named— including Governor Whitmer— were no longer the defendants named in the original case, the state’s brief argued, and some local control had been returned to the Detroit Public Schools; moreover the Governor has committed to increased educational spending in her new budget.

“In fact, not all members of the State Board of Education saw things as stated in the State’s filing. While seven board members held that the case was moot, with the two Republicans on the board also rejecting outright the notion that the state constitution guaranteed access to literacy, one member’s perspective was not represented in the State’s brief at all. Board Vice President Pamela Pugh, a Saginaw Democrat who is also the Chair of the NAACP Michigan State Conference Education Committee and the Chief Public Health Advisor to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, withheld her fundamental agreement with the arguments of the plaintiffs in the case.

“Instead, Vice President Pamela Pugh has issued the following statement, titled The Time is Now for Governor Whitmer, Education Officials, and Michigan Lawmakers to Guarantee Michigan Children’s Fundamental Right to Learn to Read and Write.”

Vice President Pamela Pugh wrote:

Greetings,

This message serves to inform you that relative to the Detroit Right to Literacy lawsuit, I have notified the office of the Michigan Attorney General that I did not communicate in any way that I would be taking or supporting the legal position that the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit should dismiss Plaintiffs’ appeal on mootness grounds. It was represented in the reply brief filed by the State Defendants on Friday, May 24, 2019, that this is the legal position taken by all named defendants in this litigation.  I have also confirmed with the office of the Attorney General that I am exploring the options available to me, as a member of the Michigan Board of Education, to properly and procedurally address this matter.

This case has caused me to reflect deeply upon my beliefs, my values, and the very reason that I decided to run for the office of the State Board of Education; a role that the framers of our state constitution created to function distinct from that of the Governor and the state’s Executive Branch

I am reminded that in 1964 Rev. Dr, Martin Luther King pronounced, “the walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status”.  Dr. King went on to say, “As Negroes, we have struggled to be free and had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education.”  Now in 2019, 55 years later, with African Americans still struggling and fighting to be free, and to have an opportunity for an equitable and decent education, I am reminded of the urgency of the matter. 

Michigan ranks among the worst states in the nation for the educational performance of African American students.  While our children and educators are being labeled as failures, Michigan’s K-12 public education has been built on a crumbling foundation of racism and historic segregationist practices; many of which were sanctioned by our very own state government.  There is no doubt that these practices, and the policy makers who were unwilling to determinedly address the inequitable effects of them, are ultimately responsible for the failure of our children, their parents, and their teachers/educators.  

Through decades of inequitable funding and disastrous education program experiments, there’s been a perpetuation of children of color being deprived of the basic and proven conditions necessary for them to learn. Classroom learning is thwarted without literacy. Essential to a decent education are an adequate number of well trained teachers, sufficient teaching resources, and school buildings that aren’t environmental health hazards.  

Compounding this is the misuse and overuse of standardized tests, and, more importantly, the manipulative and abusive consequences that now accompany them.  These devices, and their penalties, such as “Read or Flunk” and “A-F” Laws, are now the primary tool, or the new and improved 21st century mechanism, used to submerge and maintain African Americans and communities of color in second class status.

In 1947, as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King told us that, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

I am reminded of our beloved Martin’s call for us to think for ourselves, to be outspoken and committed to what’s moral and right. As the Vice President of the Michigan State Board of Education, I am motivated by his words which call for us to speak with clarity and boldness in standing against the real and imminent threats to a decent and equitable education for all Michigan children.

Anything short of Governor Whitmer and state education officials completely separating from former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s arguments, and taking responsibility for our children of color being granted the equal right to critical learning conditions that are afforded to students in other school districts is simply unacceptable.  This is especially true for Detroit Public Schools where special compensation is needed due to state control of the district for almost 20 years. In my opinion this robbed Detroit children of the basic right to literacy, a fundamental right which I believe should be determined to be guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, as well as other constitutional rights which require literacy skills. .

The time is now for Michigan lawmakers, the Governor, and state education leaders to move with urgency, clarity, and boldness to call for an appropriate level education funding for all our children. We owe the children of our state a decent education that includes adequate literacy skills as a core component to their training. This is an urgent matter, especially in the face of the cumulative effects of destructive policies that have derailed the educational progress of our low income children and children of color, and caused the failure of Michigan’s K-12 public education system.

Pamela L. Pugh, DrPH, MS
Michigan State Board of Education

Vice President
pampugh@umich.edu