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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:

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.