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July 3, 2013

On June 27, 2013, a Michigan Circuit Court held that the state's constitution guarantees the children of the Highland Park School District the right to an education. The court also denied the several defendants' motion to dismiss due to immunity because "no statutory enactment can grant immunity from ... violation of individual constitutional rights."

"This is a tremendous victory for the residents of Highland Park and all children in Michigan," said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. "We will now have the opportunity to prove to the court what educational experts, students and parents in the district already know -- the state has failed to fulfill its obligation to our students and provide them with a quality education, which is every child's right."

The trial, in S.S. v. State of Michigan, is scheduled to begin July 22. The for-profit Leona Group, which the state appointed to run the district, and the state-appointed district "emergency financial manager," Donald Weatherspoon, are among the defendants.

ACLU-MI filed the case in July 2012, on behalf of Highland Park's students, many of whom are years behind in reading and writing. At the heart of the lawsuit is a Michigan law that requires districts to provide additional "special assistance" to students who are not performing at grade level on fourth- and seventh-grade tests. The assistance must be "reasonably expected ... to bring reading skills to grade level within 12 months."

Plaintiffs are seeking a court order for immediate remedy by the state, including research-based methods of instruction, highly trained educators and administrators, new educational materials and textbooks, a clean and safe learning environment, and implementation of a process for monitoring progress. ACLU's Moss asserts that the state, district and for-profit charter company have no program to systematically deliver the mandated reading assistance.

In addition, Michigan's Constitution states that, "the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law" and singles out education as a uniquely important state function. On that basis, the court held that, " ... the State of Michigan has a broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children. Although the legislature has chosen to establish a decentralized system of education which gives broad discretionary authority to local school districts, those districts, such as the Highland Park Public School District, are still carrying out a delegated duty of the state under [the constitution's education article]. ... the legislature cannot abandon the education of those children to the vagaries of local school finances."

Therefore, according to the court, financial stress does not excuse the state from its constitutional and statutory duties. In Michigan, the state has imposed significant financial stress by cutting funding to school districts, including Highland Park.

Comments and actions by the district's "emergency financial manager" shine a light on the state's dismissive attitude towards Highland Park. Weatherspoon told the court through his attorney that it is "hard to imagine what remedy there would be to bring these students up to grade. Reality is reality." He also was recently accused of literally trashing the high school's library, throwing into dumpsters library furniture, equipment and books, including a highly regarded African-American history collection, later saying "I'm not in the library business."

As reported in The Michigan Citizen, "Some of the court room arguments during the four-hour hearing provided a glimpse into the history of education 'reform' under market-based school measures that Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican lawmakers have pushed."

Related Story:
Michigan Is Denying Children the Right to Read!
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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