If Johnny Can't Read, Who's to Blame?
When a federal court dismissed on June 29 the class-action lawsuit claiming that the State of Michigan had deprived Detroit public schoolchildren of "their right to literacy," the left was all set to react in faux shock. The court's key finding hardly came as news to most of us, but the headlines in the New York Times sounded as if someone had denied climate change: "'Access to Literacy' Is Not a Constitutional Right, Judge in Detroit Rules."
These days, when everything progressives want government to provide free is defined as a "right" – health care, housing, a guaranteed income, American citizenship for illegal aliens, etc. – it stands to reason that literacy may as well be thrown in there, too. It's only obvious, provided you've never read the Bill of Rights. Hence this lawsuit, brought by public-interest lawyers (who know better) on behalf of several students of low-performing Detroit schools, claiming that "access to literacy" is a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.
Judge Stephen J. Murphy's 40-page opinion dismissing the case politely but firmly explains why literacy is not a fundamental right, and we can expect that finding, after years of legal dramatics, to be upheld on appeal. The defendants in the case include Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the state superintendent of public schools, and the members of the State of Michigan School Board. Notably not being sued are any members of the Detroit school district's Board of Education, who are the elected officials actually in charge of managing Detroit schools.
The lawsuit claims that "[d]ecades of State disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to Detroit schools have denied Plaintiff schoolchildren access to the most basic building block of education: literacy." It accuses state officials of "intentionally discriminating against [Plaintiffs] on the basis of race." The plaintiffs demand a boodle bag full of remedies, collectively described in Judge Murphy's opinion as "unquestionably sweeping – and undoubtedly costly."
To support its allegations of "deliberate indifference," the complaint distorts the story of Detroit's troubled school system so it begins only after the state first intervened in 1999. The lawsuit barely manages 13 words about how it was only following decades of failures and malfeasance by the district's former elected school board that, as reported by Crain's Detroit Business, "poor academics, abhorrent graduation rates and low test scores opened the door for the state to wrest control from an elected school board." Republican Governor John Engler had been trying to get the district fixed since his election in 1990, but he was stymied by a majority of Democrats in the state House. When Republicans finally won a majority, they acted to allow Detroit's Democrat Mayor Dennis Archer (with his full support and that of many other Democrat leaders) to take over the district in an attempt to finally turn it around. According to the New York Times, the mayor had had enough of a "school board ... [that] ignored too many proposals over the years to improve its financial management practices and the overall administration of schools." For example:
Despite having classrooms without enough books or supplies, the district has a $93 million surplus, partly because officials have used low-paid substitutes to fill the 1,100 vacancies among 12,000 teaching positions[.]
The school board, invariably re-elected by loyal Detroit residents to govern the district, were manifestly incompetent and entirely ungovernable themselves:
Only $400 million has been spent of a $1.5 billion bond issue for long-term capital improvements approved in 1994. A series of school superintendents have been hired, promising substantial changes, only to end up arguing with the school board and leaving.
That's right: Democrat board members weren't even organized enough to blow $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds. It's not as if they didn't have time while being chauffeured around in limousines.
When the school board was ousted and replaced with an unelected reform board in 1999, Detroit residents were outraged, calling it undemocratic to replace an elected school board and racist that white politicians (Mayor Archer was black) should be making decisions over what happens in majority-black Detroit. Under the reform board, things improved, but not much, as the damage was too deep. Enrollment continued to drop, taking per-pupil funding with it.
In 2004, Detroiters voted to return to an elected school board. But soon, "budget missteps, corruption, financial mismanagement and enrollment losses ushered in" another round of state intervention, this time under a Democrat, Governor Jennifer Granholm. In 2009, when it came to light that "[d]istrict officials, including the school board ... had problems keeping track of how much money was coming in and what was owed," Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as emergency financial manager. He immediately figured out that basic administrative tasks were being screwed up, and "1,545 DPS employees had ineligible dependents on the staff, costing the district an estimated $2.6 million." Looking back later, Bobb said he'd "found Detroit Public Schools to be a magnificent vessel of wholesale theft and graft. Not one area of management escaped the thieves and defrauders." That included food service workers; teachers (and a teacher's mother!); and even members of his security team, who lied about overtime.
By 2016, the "culture of corruption" in the district led to federal charges against a dozen current and former school principals who were "taking bribes and kickbacks from a school supplies vendor and fabricating invoices from the city's beleaguered public schools." The scheme stretched all the way back to 2002 (and even liberal commentator Jack Lessenberry became convinced "that Detroit Public School administrators deserve to be held in contempt"). By the time six of the crooked principals were pleading guilty to their role in the kickback scheme, Michigan's Republican lawmakers were finalizing a $617-million bailout to save the district from bankruptcy. While Michigan citizens watched yet more tax dollars consigned to oblivion, Democrat legislators were griping that the bailout wasn't big enough.
At the end of 2017, Michigan Capitol Confidential reported that per-student spending for the Detroit Public Schools Community District was higher:
... [t]han all but eight of the nation's 100 largest school districts, or $14,259. Even with all that money, the district still generated the nation's worst reading scores among low-income students. The Miami-Dade district spends $8,725 per student (some $5,500 less than Detroit), and children from low-income households there had the best literacy rates among large cities.
So where exactly is the "deliberate indifference" and "disinvestment" in all of this?
Whatever is behind the literacy problems in Detroit schools, it's not lack of money, state indifference, or "disinvestment." Nor did Judge Murphy find any basis for a claim of racial discrimination against the defendants. Not that any of that will matter to the folks who brought this lawsuit, nor to the misinformed segment of the public whose indignation all of this is meant to stir up.