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:

Looking back and ahead

Here are six big things that happened in Tennessee in 2017 that will resonate in 2018

Children in Head Start programs in Nashville enjoy games on the lawn of the governor's mansion in 2017. Tennessee is putting more emphasis on pre-K as a key to reaching statewide reading goals.

From another year of statewide testing snafus to a growing consensus that pre-K investments are key to unlocking stubborn reading barriers, Tennessee faced education challenges and opportunities in 2017 that are sure to make headlines again during the new year.

Here are six issues we expect to revisit in 2018.

1. TNReady testing: Will the third time be a charm?

During the first year of Tennessee’s new standardized test, TNReady was canceled for most grades after a testing company’s new online platform stalled on the first day. This year, testing went better, but there were fumbles, including score deliveries that were too late to be useful and a scanning mistake that led to scoring errors on some high school tests. In the spring, when the bulk of this school year’s TNReady testing happens, Tennessee is counting on high schools’ switch to online testing to expedite score delivery and pave the way for online testing the following year for most younger students. State officials say TNReady is off to a good start in its third year, with 266 high schools on block schedules completing the online test this fall.

2. Vouchers again?

The battle over vouchers had been expected to dominate education debate when the state legislature reconvenes in January. But the surprising news that the Senate sponsor Brian Kelsey doesn’t plan to carry the bill in 2018 means vouchers could stall again, unless the House sponsor Harry Brooks finds a new champion in the Senate. (Update: Brooks has since said that he won’t pursue the bill either, effectively killing the proposal.) Either way, vouchers likely aren’t going away and definitely will be an issue in 2018 gubernatorial and legislative races, especially as President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, continue to beat the drum for allowing parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision,” DeVos told reporters last month during her first official visit to Tennessee.

3. Priming for pre-K.

For years, Tennessee has waged a war on illiteracy with little success. But as the state seeks to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025, the growing consensus in 2017 was that investing in pre-K and early education programs is the key to reaching that goal. This year, for the first time, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding. But in Memphis and Nashville, home to some of the worst reading scores in the state, a significant challenge looms with the mid-2019 expiration of a $70 million federal grant that’s helped pay for hundreds of disadvantaged children to attend pre-K. Both communities are scrambling to fill that gap — a concern that this week compelled the Memphis City Council to pledge $8 million for pre-K classrooms (although without saying where the money would come from). The investment would be the city’s first in public education since handing over control of its schools to Shelby County four years ago.

4. A green light for ESSA.

More than a year and a half after President Obama signed a new federal education law that’s designed to give states more flexibility to innovate, Tennessee received approval this year of its new plan to meet the demands of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Tennessee’s accountability plan includes an A-F grading system, scheduled to roll out in mid-2018, aimed at helping parents and communities know more about the quality of their neighborhood schools. Beyond test scores, it will include measures like chronic absenteeism and the number of out-of-school suspensions. The plan also changes the state’s approach and timeline for holding chronically low-performing schools accountable. Next summer, Tennessee will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, setting the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.

5. Tweaking turnaround.

The Achievement School District is in its sixth year of trying to turn around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools, and the state’s education commissioner has called the state-run district its most “rigorous intervention” under ESSA. But Memphis schools taken over by the district’s approved charter management organizations have yielded little improvement in their early years, while academically troubled schools in locally operated innovation zones have shown promise, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. Though the state education department has emphasized its support of the ASD, it’s pivoting next year to a new kind of intervention called a partnership zone, in which the state will partner with Hamilton County Schools to make improvements in five chronically underperforming Chattanooga schools.

6. A microscope on Memphis.

Improper grade changes that teachers say have been happening in the shadows for years is coming to light in Tennessee’s largest district. An external investigation launched this year after a Memphis high school principal noticed discrepancies between report cards and transcripts. The probe has since flagged concerns with at least seven other high schools, and three people have been fired or suspended as a result. Talks on how Shelby County Schools will clean house, help students negatively affected, and build in safeguards against future abuse is expected to dominate the coming year, even as the district enjoyed good news this year about better-than-expected finances and student enrollment.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.

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.