Suit

Detroit lawsuit stops just short of accusing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of bribery

A new lawsuit all but accuses U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of bribery for her role in influencing Detroit schools legislation last year.

The suit, filed this month by the former Detroit school board and Detroit parents, seeks potentially millions of dollars from the billionaire Michigan philanthropist, asserting that she used campaign contributions to kill a controversial education commission.

“I am not accusing her of bribery,” said lawyer Tom Bleakley, who this month filed the suit in Detroit’s Wayne County Circuit Court. “What I do in all fairness is I set out what she has done and then I give the definition of bribery in the state of Michigan and I contend that it’s up to a jury to draw any reasonable inferences.”

The suit refers to the fierce political battle in Lansing last year over a package of bills that were designed to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.

Early drafts of the bills would have created a Detroit Education Commission that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools in the city.

The commission had broad support from community leaders in Detroit but was strongly opposed by DeVos and some charter school advocates, who feared the commission would favor traditional district schools over charters.

The DeVos-founded Great Lakes Education Project, a political organization, worked aggressively to block the commission.

In the weeks after lawmakers removed the commission from the final bills, the DeVos family poured $1.45 million dollars into the campaign coffers of Republican lawmakers who took her side in the fight — contributions that amounted to $25,000 a day for seven weeks.

“It’s up to a jury to draw any reasonable inference from the amounts as well as the timing of the money and whether it influenced any state officials,” Bleakley said.

A civil suit does not have the authority to charge anyone with a crime such as a bribery. The suit seeks financial damages from DeVos.

The U.S. Education Department did not respond to a request for comment, but Greg McNeilly, who is a member of the Great Lakes Education Project board, called the suit a “publicity stunt” that is taking advantage of DeVos’s new position as education secretary.

The actions alleged in the suit all occurred months before President Trump was elected and chose DeVos as his top education official.

“Some people are still upset that they weren’t able to create a rigged and politically corrupt system, which is what the Detroit Education Commission proposal was,” McNeilly said. “It would have further harmed students.”

The former school board that brought the suit is the 11-member elected body that was largely powerless during much of the last decade as the city schools were run by state-appointed emergency managers. The board filed unsuccessful challenges last year after the Detroit legislation passed, creating a new school district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The new district is run by a new seven-member board that was elected last fall. Just one member of the old board was elected to the new board.

The old board filed a number of lawsuits during the emergency manager era, from 2009 until 2016, mostly challenging the emergency manager law.

The latest suit is the first from the board that names DeVos as a defendant. Also named are state officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder.

The suit accuses the state of under-funding special education in Detroit and seeks to block language that allows Detroit schools — but no other Michigan districts — to hire uncertified teachers. Snyder’s office declined to comment.

Read the suit here and a brief supporting it here.

 

 

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid for their years of experience if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise the pay of veteran teachers — and to bring in experienced teachers at higher salaries.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

For years, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restricted the pay of experienced teachers who wanted to come into the district. As a result, new teachers can currently only get credit for two years of experience, regardless of how many years they’ve taught in other cities or in charter schools.

Vitti has called that restriction a major reason why it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep existing ones. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The committee also recommended giving a one-time bonus to teachers at the top of the salary scale, to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes could give the district a new tool in trying to reduce the teacher shortage. It’s a major change for district teachers who saw their pay slashed by 10 percent in 2011. The new contract ratified by the union members last summer promised to increase teacher pay by 7 percent over three years but many teachers grumbled that it wasn’t enough to bring them back to where they were in 2011. 

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” Bailey said. Specifically, the union wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.