Week in Review: Civil rights, white flight and the Hunger Games in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says failure to provide quality literacy instruction to all kids is a 'pernicious form of racial inequality.'

The lawyers behind the federal civil rights lawsuit say they’re the first in the country to argue that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to literacy. If they’re successful, their suit against Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials could influence school funding debates around the country. But in the meantime, the suit reveals that Detroit students are putting up with horrifying conditions including a math class taught by an eighth grader, students left to grieve a classmate’s murder without support, and filthy conditions such as condoms and sex toys strewn on a playground.

"For me, teaching felt less like a career and more like a veritable Hunger Games. While I wish this was only a dark metaphor, it really did feel like my students and I were forced to endure conditions that were not only detrimental to their education but dangerous to their well-being."Renee Schenkman, former teacher, Experiencia Preparatory Academy


Read on for the rest of the week’s news including the a new contract for Detroit teachers, more sentencings of corrupt principals, and an important look at how school choice has become a form of white flight in Detroit and its suburbs.


The ‘other shoe’ after Brown v. Board?

The federal civil rights suit filed on behalf of Detroit school children this week could have national implications if courts accept the suit’s assertion that the current state of Detroit schools violates the U.S. Constitution.

One Harvard Constitutional law scholar said he expects the suit will make history, “much as Brown v. Board of Education did.” He added: “If you think of Brown v. Board as one shoe that dropped, this is the other shoe.”

That legal argument is spelled out in the complaint and in an op/ed by two of the lawyers behind it. Noting that “conditions in many Detroit schools shock the conscience and make proper delivery of literacy instruction impossible,” the lawyers say Detroit schools, which enroll almost exclusively poor, non-white children, “are both separate and unequal.”

We collected some of the most disturbing details in the complaint. The conditions at one now-defunct charter school were so bad that one teacher compared them to dystopic terror.

Gov. Snyder’s office says he doesn’t comment on pending litigation but one of the other listed defendants in the case, state Board of Education president John Austin, says the school board shouldn’t be sued because it has done its job by recommending improvements.

Most school equity fights are in state courts but one legal expert said this federal suit is one to watch. “This is not something somebody threw together with 10 pages of assorted allegations,” the expert said.

The suit comes as the ACLU of Michigan announces a new campaign to pressure the state to provide a quality education to all kids. The group released a report on ways to improve literacy education for the state’s most vulnerable children.

Thanks for reading. Please share this with your friends and colleagues and let us know if you have any story ideas or want to suggest a Detroit educator who should be featured in a future Chalkbeat story.


Is school choice the new white flight?

Bridge Magazine takes a look at how Michigan’s two-decade-old Schools of Choice program, which lets districts accept students from neighboring towns, has made Michigan schools more racially segregated than ever.

The story focuses on the East Detroit school district where 40 percent of district residents — but only 19 percent of enrolled students — are white. “You’d have to have your head in the sand to not see that some of it is racial,” one expert said.

The story comes with a database that reveals how many students individual districts bring in through Schools of Choice — and how many they lose to neighboring districts.

The magazine also highlights a suburban district that is taking steps to reduce segregated classrooms despite warnings that integrating schools would push white families to leave. “It’s socioeconomic, it’s racial,” the district superintendent said about the pushback. “It’s ‘I don’t want my students with those kids.’”

Meanwhile, Michigan Radio looks at the court case that sealed Detroit’s fate as a region with racially segregated schools.

And the president of the influential Ford Foundation told a conference of Detroit ex-pats that the state of the city’s schools is a symptom of the city’s highly racialized character.


A ‘double standard’ in school closings?

Republican leaders have formally requested the state attorney general’s help in trying to force the state to close Detroit’s lowest-performing public schools. A Detroit News editor urged him to act quickly.

The request is a response to Gov. Snyder’s announcement that he has accepted the legal view that the state can’t close schools in the city’s main school district for three years because the district is officially a new legal entity called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The state House Speaker says giving Detroit schools a break would “create a double standard” at a time when schools outside Detroit face closure. A legal blogger, however, says the speaker was “misrepresenting” the law.

When states like Michigan do close struggling schools, is racism is often a factor?


Money and politics

Responding to a report that members of her family rewarded Republican lawmakers with $1.45 million this summer after trying to influence Detroit Public Schools legislation to favor charter schools, Betsy DeVos said the criticism hurts kids most.

Calling the story, by Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson, a “personal attack,” DeVos wrote that the paper is “really attacking Detroit children and their parents.” She added: “While Henderson is free to disparage my family and he is free to disparage legislators and their work, we are all free to work on behalf of the kids who need a chance at a future of opportunity and hope.”

One of the lawmakers who stands to benefit from the money says he shares the DeVos family’s commitment to charter schools and says their enormous contributions do “not have an impact on decision-making.”


In Detroit

  • A mom shocked by the 60 kids in her daughter’s sixth-grade class brought a camera to school to document children squeezed into classrooms and squatting on milk crates. The district says it’s working to reduce class sizes but notes that so many kids is a “positive indicator that the community is hopeful about our fresh start.”
  • Detroit teachers have ratified their new contract, with about 60 percent of the union’s 2,900 members voting in favor of the short-term deal. The union says the contract, which will give teachers bonuses but no permanent pay bumps, is a step toward turning around the district. But state GOP leaders blasted the deal as a “terrible agreement” and urged the state financial board that now has authority over the Detroit Public Schools to stop the contract.
  • Four more corrupt principals were sentenced to jail this week, offering a range of excuses for taking bribes. A Free Press columnist urged the convicted to “stop talking and go to prison” while the sentencings spurred this Free Press cartoon.
  • The old Detroit Public Schools has had its bond rating slashed — again.
  • A local activist with a long history of challenging local officials got two school board candidates booted off the ballot on a technicality, and he’s working on getting a third candidate removed as well. One of the spiked candidates was part of what a Detroit News columnist last week called a “dream team” slate.
  • A top Education Achievement Authority official was selected by the Chiefs for Change organization to shadow Louisiana State Superintendent John White as part of program that trains administrators to lead large state or urban school systems.


Across the state

  • The governor’s 21st Century Education Commission is soliciting community input on what Michigan’s education system “should look like.”
  • Among new legislation lawmakers will consider in Lansing this fall are several education bills, including a “teacher shortage prevention act” and a bill that would require school districts to pay for busing students to private schools.
  • An author and high school college advisor urged Michigan families to lobby a state senator who has held up legislation that would require better training to help counselors guide kids to college and careers.
  • A Detroit news columnist has concerns about new rules that make it difficult for schools to receive funding for students who transfer into a school after the fall count day.
  • A top official at a charter school association offers a detailed explanation of how school funding works in Michigan.
  • A radio reporter explains how the state pays for special education.
  • Here’s a good guess about the average class size in Michigan.
  • Though some of the colleges and universities that oversee charter schools in Michigan have been criticized for allowing too many bad schools to stay open, an official with one of the state’s top charter school authorizers says colleges and universities are in the best position to ensure quality schools.
  • The state board of education voted to approve a controversial set of guidelines on how schools should work with gay, lesbian and transgender students. Though the guidelines are just advisory and are not legally enforceable, the vote left some trans kids overjoyed. One columnist praised the board as brave to hold a vote that could hurt their chance of reelection this fall, but a Republican board member who voted against the guidelines wrote that they will harm children and families.


In other news:


More Chalkbeat:

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

parting ways

No fireworks in Houston as school board bids farewell to Carranza

PHOTO: Houston Independent School District
Houston school board members and elected officials discussed the departure of their superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be New York City's next schools chief.

Houston’s school board didn’t put up a fight Tuesday while ironing out the details of superintendent Richard Carranza’s departure to become New York City schools chancellor.

The Houston Independent School District board will have to negotiate the terms of Carranza’s leave since his contract runs through August 2019. But the board’s response to his move lacked the theatrics of last week’s Miami-Dade County school board emergency meeting to discuss the city’s first pick for chancellor, Alberto Carvalho.

That emergency meeting stretched on for hours with tearful pleas from students and board members who begged Carvalho to stay. In the end, Carvalho rejected the New York City job on live television.

At a press conference, Houston leaders put up no such fight for Carranza, who has only been in office there less than two years. Board trustee Sergio Lira said he expects the negotiations to end Carranza’s contract will go smoothly.

“We’re going to release him from his contract with the least harm,” Lira told Chalkbeat.  “We want to wish him the best and don’t want to impede his departure.”

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Carranza would replace retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down at the end of March. The mayor’s pick came as a surprise in both New York City and Houston, as Carranza’s name had not surfaced publicly during the months-long search for a successor.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the president of Houston’s board of trustees, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, said Carranza had given his two weeks notice — “give or take.” He is expected to continue working during that time, rather than take leave.

Houston appears stoic, even though Carrzanza’s abrupt departures adds to an already long list of challenges. The school system faces a $115 million budget gap, the threat of state takeover and ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are aware of our challenges and we each have our own responsibility in solving our challenges,” Skillern-Jones said at the press conference.

Peppered with questions about how Carranza’s departure could add to the list of difficulties, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner interjected:

“Enough on Carranza. I wish him well,” Turner said. “But now the focus is on the 215,000 kids who are still here, depending on the rest of us to come together.”

Monica Disare contribute reporting.