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:

Week In Review

Week In Review: Count Day pizza, ‘Burger King’ money, and a teachers union spy

Students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School were treated to smoothies and popcorn on Count Day, courtesy of the Eastern Market and the district's office of school nutrition. The school also raffled prizes including a special lunch with the school's principal.

The slushies, ice cream, and raffle prizes that schools across the state used this week to lure students to school on Count Day are the result of a state funding system that pays schools primarily based on the number of students who are enrolled on the first Wednesday of October. The state’s had that system for more than 20 years but it’s worth asking: Is there a better way?

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says maybe — he’s just not sure what that would be. One thing he is sure of: Struggling schools need to be discerning when they’re approached by community groups with offers of help. When he visited schools this year that were threatened with closure, he said, he saw schools in such “dire shape,” they had taken “any help they could get.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the right kind.

Also this week, Chalkbeat checked in with the dynamic Central High School teacher we wrote about in June who uses music to teach students about African-American history. He had intended to return to his classroom this year — but the cost was just too high.

Scroll down for more on these stories, plus the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, don’t forget to tell talented journalists you know that Chalkbeat Detroit is hiring! We’re looking forward to expanding our coverage of early childhood education, special education, and other issues as we grow our staff in Detroit. Thanks for reading!


Count Day

  • Every kid who showed up in class on Wednesday was worth thousands of dollars to his or her school. Each child this year brings his or her school between $7,631 and $15,676, depending on historic funding levels. (Michigan school funding is based 90 percent on fall Count Day enrollment and 10 percent on enrollment in February).
  • The main Detroit district, which started fresh as the new Detroit Public Schools Community District last year, gets $7,670 per student. It had 48,511 students in class on Wednesday and expects its total official enrollment to rise above 50,000 as it submits paperwork to get credit for enrolled students who were absent Wednesday.
  • The district is one of 16 in the state that have lost more than half of their enrollment in the last decade.
  • Another district shares how it nearly doubled the number of students it serves in the last 10 years.
  • Michigan is one of 19 states that use attendance on one or two days to determine school funding levels for the year. “It’s unfortunate” that schools devote resources to “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school,” the state superintendent said. But other counting methods are also problematic.
  • Not all the prizes schools handed out on Count Day were just for fun. A local union donated 50,000 child ID kits that were distributed to Detroit students on Count Day. The kits give parents tools they can use if their child goes missing.

Staffing up

  • Music teacher Quincy Stewart had been determined to stay with his students — until he learned he’d have to take a $30,000 pay cut. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000?” he said. “I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”
  • The teacher shortage that’s left Stewart’s classroom empty (and the students at Central without access to music class) also affects charter schools.. One city parent wrote says her daughter fell behind at a top charter school last year when a substitute filled in for the certified teacher.
  • As Detroit works to raise starting teacher salaries, a new study offers some insights: Young people choose teaching more when the pay is better.
  • Last-minute talks have avoided a janitor strike in Detroit schools — for now. The janitors are employed by a private cleaning company.
  • A state teachers union says its offices were infiltrated this summer by a right-wing activist determined to dig up dirt on the organization. A Wayne County judge issued an order barring the spy from publishing information she obtained during her time posing as a college intern.
  • Another state teachers union has a new video highlighting the determination of early career educators.

Improving schools

  • The 37 schools that signed “partnership agreements” to avoid being closed by the state for poor performance have committed to improving student test scores by 2-3 percent a year, on average. If they miss the mark after three years, districts will have a choice to close the schools or reconfigure them.
  • The state superintendent urged struggling schools to decline offers of help that aren’t closely aligned with a school’s improvement plan. Schools need to be “laser-focused and not bring the flavor of the month,” he said.
  • A longtime Detroit school activist urged Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to focus on the district’s lowest-performing schools.
  • One state business leader says that Michigan students lack key skills that they need to succeed.

In Detroit

  • The historic auditorium in an abandoned west side high school building was seriously damaged in a fire. A community group had been trying to buy the building to build a community center there. The group is among many would-be buyers who’ve run into roadblocks trying to repurpose vacant former schools.
  • A ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning will mark the opening of a new school-based community center where 18 organizations will offer food, job training, and other services to the neighborhood. The center was briefly in doubt last spring when the school housing it was threatened with closure.
  • An innovative laundromat program that teaches literacy to children while their parents do the wash (the subject of a Chalkbeat story last summer) has prompted a “free laundry day” in Detroit next month.
  • Two Detroit museums announced a new partnership that will allow students to experience exhibitions at each institution on a single field trip.

Across the state

  • A GOP Michigan state legislator has been nominated to a post in the U.S Education Department under fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos. The legislator is a longtime DeVos ally who last year joined her in calling for the abolition of Detroit’s main school district.
  • A bill that would allow charter schools to grant priority enrollment to children from low-income families or those who live in certain neighborhoods has been held up due to lack of support from GOP lawmakers.
  • Almost half of Michigan’s students live in a county where there are no dedicated tax funds to pay for career and technical education programs.
  • Meet the state official developing Michigan’s plan for “transforming education through technology.”
  • Michigan may be one of the nation’s least educated states, but a Free Press columnist points out that the state at least is better than Ohio.
  • Christian schools in Michigan say they’re working to improve diversity.
  • Here’s 10 things to know about Michigan private schools.
  • Today is Manufacturing Day, when thousands of area students will get behind-the-scenes tours of 130 local manufacturing companies.  
  • This suburban teacher has won the Excellence in Education award from the state lottery.

Week In Review

Week in review: As ‘count day’ nears, the scramble is on to lure students and teachers

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan districts are trying to get as many students as they can into school for next week's Count Day. That includes these kids from Detroit's Durfee Elementary-Middle school who met new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on the first day of school.

The scorching temperatures that shut many schools down early in Detroit and across the state this week have finally broken, but in other ways, the heat is still very much on.

Next Wednesday is count day — the crucial day when the number of students who show up for class will determine much of a school’s budget for the rest of the year. Schools are planning special events including carnivals, pizza parties, and giveaways to entice as many students to school as possible. The main Detroit district is offering free breakfast and lunch to parents.

The district is also stepping up its game to bring more teachers into classrooms, considering additional incentives for educators willing to work in “hard-to-staff” schools and in shortage areas such as special education.

Scroll down for more on these stories — plus check out our latest Story Booth from a group of high school students discussing the people who motivate them to succeed.

Also, Chalkbeat has a new national newsletter! Check it out and subscribe here. And, our reporters in New York, Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana, and Detroit spelled out what we plan to cover this year — with help from our readers. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback, or making a financial contribution. And for now, read on for all of this week’s headlines.

In Detroit

  • Details of a program that would pay teachers more to take jobs in “hard-to-staff” positions in Detroit’s main district will be worked out through negotiations with the city teachers union.
  • Early numbers show the main district could see its first enrollment increase in years as it absorbs students from shuttered charter schools and the now-dissolved state recovery district.
  • U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed at Harvard University when responding to a question about Detroit schools.
  • Quicken Loans plans to bankroll computer science classes for 15,000 Detroit students. The contribution — announced as part of Ivanka Trump’s visit to Detroit this week — is among half a billion dollars from private companies and the government that will go toward computer science education across the country.
  • Here’s why 2,000 Detroit ninth graders just got free cell phones.
  • This Detroit high school has seen some tough times, but its students mean business.
  • The board that oversees the finances of the city and school district just got a new member.
  • Two researchers explain how the new hockey and basketball arena will take money away from Detroit schools.  
  • A Detroit charter school management company just got a $5 million grant from the federal government, one of 17 charters nationally to get help expanding.
  • A former Michigan governor says Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan  — and his successors — should be given control over the city schools. That same governor was just named by DeVos to a national education board.
  • Two Detroit high schools will now have special programs on Saturdays.

Across the state

  • A new study finds the state’s “schools of choice” program, which lets students cross district lines to attend school, has little effect on student performance.
  • State data show that nearly a quarter of Michigan students are not attending school in their home district. Some of those kids are in charters. Others are crossing district lines to attend a neighboring district.
  • These are the 50 Michigan districts that have the largest net loss of students from schools of choice (Detroit is No. 6). These 50 districts saw the biggest gains.
  • A photo essay from an advocacy organization illustrates how a state school funding system that provides no construction funds to districts has created “disheartening disparities in the quality of facilities between tax-rich districts and their poorer counterparts.”
  • This tax loophole is keeping money from Michigan schools.
  • Wednesday is not just count day. It’s also Walk to School day, and 300 Michigan schools are expected to participate.
  • The state court of appeals has rejected an effort by Catholic schools and lawmakers to join the ongoing legal dispute over whether state money can flow to private schools.
  • It’s hard to compare Michigan SAT scores to those in other states because all students here, not just ones heading to college, take the test. Still, here’s how Michigan students did compared to other states with high participation rates.
  • A new study says Michigan teachers have it pretty good compared to their peers in other states.  
  • The state school reform officer who led a botched effort to close 38 low-performing Michigan schools has resigned to take a job in Missouri. The state superintendent is looking for her replacement while planning another round of the “partnership agreements” that districts were able to sign to avoid closure.
  • Thirteen Michigan schools — none in Detroit — were awarded federal “Blue Ribbon” recognition for their test scores.
  • A Detroit education professor pushed back against a state education leader who says Michigan schools are not in crisis. “Michigan’s academic stagnation,” she writes, “is a real and direct threat to our state and our children’s futures.”

In other news