Literacy Case

By: Imani Harris


According to the state of Michigan, my high school education did not matter to them, because it wasn’t a right. 

It didn’t matter when I spent my first semester of freshman year without a French teacher. 

Or when I spent my entire sophomore year without an English teacher. Or all the times I had to share books with anywhere from 2-4 other students because we didn’t have enough. 

Or when I got to college and realized I literally didn’t know how to study. 

My brother’s education didn’t matter either, I guess. 

Like when my school had to change his Spanish class to humanities after losing the only Spanish teacher we had, and then having “permanent substitutes” for months. (Since a language was a 4-year requirement, this meant also changing an entire requirement to accommodate).

And don’t get me started on my peers from different schools. Everything from moldy hallways to being brutally attacked by security guards with no one to hold them accountable--their educations didn’t matter either.

Then again, neither did any other of the students harmed by the transgressions of a district driven under state control for the better part of 15 years. None of that mattered, I guess, because we didn’t deserve an education. Or maybe the state believes that we did. They just struggle with the idea that it’s their fault we didn’t receive one.

The same state that actively denied me, and the roughly 45,000 other students in its main district, that education, has now declared to the world that they don’t feel responsible. Hilariously enough, they aren’t even arguing that we haven’t been denied education--just that since we have no “right” to it, there’s no one to hold accountable. Or at least, that’s what I’ve garnered from the current case against the state of Michigan, hoping to hold the state accountable for more than a decade of failing to educate Detroit students. 

You might think I’m overdoing it, or that I’m being emotional--I can assure you that I’m not. 

I read an article from Chalkbeat Detroit before preparing to write this blog post, and one line hit me like a brick: 

“Putting a dollar sign on any sweeping remedy, argued plaintiffs attorney Carter Phillips, was premature; the case hadn’t even gotten to trial before U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III dismissed the case and its argument that access to literacy was a fundamental right.”

It’s a story as old as time. If I, as a judge, as a human, as a state, can deny responsibility for the harm placed on a group of people, then I can deny that the issue needs to be reconciled at all. It’s bigger than our high school education though, because this lack of education continues to affect every single student who is a product of the district that failed us.

In 1970 Detroit Public School District had 293,822 students enrolled. Students were well educated, teachers were at an all time high, and things were looking up--except that they weren’t. Two years prior, Black citizens in Detroit had finally hit their limit, and they rebelled against a system that had oppressed them for so long. After that, white people, who had originally been the majority, began to take flight. Mix that with the decrease in factory jobs, and a banking crisis steeped in predatory lending practices resulting in tens of thousands of foreclosures, and you get a city losing citizens at record numbers, leaving behind their houses and communities to rot.

Like I said, the school district was booming prior to white flight, and so was the city. Booming for who, I’m sure it’s quite clear, since the Milliken v. Bradley case happened as recently as 1974, and we know that Black schools were not getting their “equal” portion of separate but equal, but that’s another conversation. The population of the entire city was 1,670,144 in 1960, and about 71% of those residents were white, only about 29% Black, according to the US Census. 49 years later, Detroit is one of the Blackest cities in the country (about 83%), and its education system is considered to be one of the worst in the country. 

What’s the common denominator? The answer is really quite simple. As white people began to evade the city, so, too, did the care for what happened to Detroit, and the people left to deal with the mess. By this year, the population of the city has decreased to 672,662 residents, and almost 40% of its residents (and more than half its children)  live below the poverty line.

Now, I didn’t plan to make this a history lesson of Detroit, and I definitely haven’t done a great job if that was my goal. The point I’m trying to make is that Michigan once saw the value in educating students, but at some point that changed. We’ve written blogs about how Michigan’s funding looks, but to catch you up, we’re 50th out of all 50 states for funding growth since 1995.  And with that, steady decrease in funding and care for the education of its students, Detroit Public Schools district was hit pretty hard.

Still, I’m afraid I may have gone off on a rant, and that’s far from my intention. 

My intention is to give you an overview of what happened, and why this case is legitimate. So that’s what I will try to do.

So, after white flight, there were lots of issues with the school system because of the loss of so many students. Schools had to be closed or consolidated, teachers had to be relocated or fired, and it was all around chaos. By 1999, the district was in such a bind that the state decided that Detroit couldn’t handle the issues alone--we would need to be “taken over” by the state. (I think it’s important to mention that at the time of state takeover, we were at a surplus in funding. But through our 15ish years under state control, we went bankrupt). By 2009, they had imposed on us our first emergency manager, Robert Bobb. For those unfamiliar with the term, an emergency manager meant that we would no longer have local control over our schools, although for the first few years we did ~sort of~ have a school board (they just weren’t elected by any Detroit citizens). Still, that board had virtually no power, and the emergency managers (yes plural, because for about seven years we ran through four emergency managers, one who was emergency manager of Flint, Michigan during the water crisis) could do whatever they wished within our schools. Anyways, emergency management was like the final nail in our coffin. Not only was nobody state-wide worried about what was really happening in schools, now, we didn’t even have a board to represent us. 

What I’m trying to say is that the state’s takeover of Michigan ruined our schools. The state is at fault for the conditions of our schools? Don’t believe, check out another Chalkbeat article, referencing a report that found the same thing.

All that has led to the experiences of my peers and I. No teachers. Moldy hallways. Holes in the gym floor. Freezing classrooms. No water. Dilapidated buildings. The list goes on and on, and it happened to me. To my brother. To my cousins. To my nephews. To my friends. It was normal to us, until it became unbearable. 

So to try and absolve the state of responsibility is disgusting, to me. Because the question isn’t even who to hold responsible, or how we plan to hold them responsible. The state is literally questioning my right, as a human, to a quality education. The same education that students around the country receive every day. 


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