Rights, reading & race

The state must give every student an education, and is failing woefully

Nobody, I suppose, would be surprised to learn that children in what remains of the Highland Park public school system aren't getting anything resembling a decent education.

Most of them are residents of what amounts to a horrid, largely burned-out slum. More than three-quarters of Highland Park seventh-graders utterly fail state reading tests.

By 11th grade, things are even worse, with more than nine out of 10 Highland Park kids less than proficient in reading and math. Small wonder too. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, they sit in classrooms that are too hot in the fall and spring, and freezing in the winter. The ceilings leak. The bathrooms are beyond filthy.

In at least one case, homeless people were living in the basement of one operating school. But nobody cares.

Not enough, that is, to do anything about it, except flee, if at all possible. Highland Park, a small independent enclave embedded within the city of Detroit, had 3,179 students just six years ago.

At last count, there were only 973 left. Nearly all are black and wretchedly poor. Nobody, including the district's politicians, has been speaking up and trying to get something better for them.

Until now.

Last week, the ACLU filed what may be a truly historic lawsuit, claiming that these students' civil and constitutional rights are being violated, that they have a right to learn how to read.

They cite not common sense and common decency, things that should be more than enough reason, but which have little legal standing. Instead, the ACLU is basing its argument on Michigan's education law, which says in part, "a pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the fourth or seventh grade reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months."

Highland Park schools aren't doing that. They aren't even providing textbooks, paper, other supplies or adequate heat.

The situation was most succinctly put by one ACLU lawyer from southern California, Mark Rosenbaum. He called the situation in Highland Park "the shame of Michigan," adding that, "it explains everything that is wrong in the state."

Well, pretty much.

But who is to blame for this? The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of eight Highland Park students, a lawsuit against the schools, now run by Emergency Manager Joyce Parker, but also the state Department of Education and the state of Michigan itself.

The lawsuit lists the dreadful conditions the kids have to endure, and charges that the Highland Park district has completely failed to provide a structure so that these kids can attain literacy.

They provided a writing sample from one of the students, a seventh-grader whose name they kept secret, to save him public embarrassment. "You can make the school gooder by getting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe," it begins.

Shame of Michigan, indeed. What always surprises me is not that the smug politicians who have cut education funding again and again don't care about poor kids like these. What bothers me is that the rich aren't scared shitless by the thought of the hundreds of thousands of starving, unemployable adults they are becoming.

Do they really think the Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe police forces will be enough when the dam bursts? Oops — I'm sorry. Being a good Republican today means never thinking at all.

However, if you do have a brain and lack a heart of stone, it is hard not to sympathize with what the ACLU is trying to do here. I do have one objection; I think it may not be fair to sue Joyce Parker, the emergency manager, as part of this. Whatever her failings — or strengths — she has been in the job less than two months. (Her predecessor, Jack Martin, was there not much longer.)

Clearly, however, the state has a responsibility to provide education for every student, and is failing woefully. Yet I don't think anyone has figured out how to do this, especially in a place like Highland Park. Consider this: Suppose the state went out and hired the best teachers it could find, and sent them here?

How could they be successful with children who in many cases are hungry and abused? Worse, in most cases they come from families where there is little or no tradition of reading and education. Back in the 1990s, a friend of mine named Euni Rose was hired to fix up the library in one of Clark Durant's Cornerstone Schools.

"These kids came from parents who were paralegals, cops, secretary types," she told me; a cut above most of the Highland Park kids on the socio-economic ladder. "However, there were no books in their homes, and education for their kids ended at their front door. They expected the school to do everything for them. I often wonder what happened to these kids," she said wistfully.

Well, we know they aren't working on the line at Oldsmobile. A few probably made it. The rest — she might not want to know.

These days, Euni reads to kids in the Southfield district, where she sees the same thing: kids from families where there is no reading or intelligent conversation in the home. That's bad enough.

But what about kids who don't even have anything resembling a conventional family? Kids living on the streets or in a car, whose parents are absent or dead or selling drugs. Can even the best teachers and the best literacy strategy save those kids?

We probably don't know. But I know it is our responsibility to try to save them, if only out of sheer self-interest. John F. Kennedy once said that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, they cannot save the few who are rich." Marx and Lenin knew that too, by the way, in case anyone can take a hint.

Back in 1994, when Proposal A was passed, the voters decided education was primarily a state responsibility.

Now the state needs to do the job, and if the ACLU lawsuit is what it takes to get them to do it, hooray for them.

The color of literacy: Long before the ACLU lawsuit was filed, Hansen Clarke, who is fighting to keep his seat in Congress, has been fighting to increase literacy, "which is our kids' only hope."

What's more, he is willing to work across party lines to accomplish it. To demonstrate this, last weekend he invited a Tea Party Republican colleague from South Carolina into the district.

The two disagree on many things — but recently worked together to sponsor bipartisan legislation to boost literacy among African-American and Hispanic men. The campaign of Clarke's main rival in the Aug. 7 primary, U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, professed to be "outraged" that their opponent brought such a person in.

Gee. I thought building coalitions is how things got done legislatively, especially when Democrats are in the minority.

The establishment is making a great effort to bury Clarke and elect Peters, a basic, don't-rock-the-boat conventional Democrat from a white-collar, Merrill Lynch background. Peters probably will win, in part because there are two other black candidates in the race, and maybe because of a scurrilous effort to convince voters that Clarke is not really black. Clarke can be a little zany, and I haven't always agreed with him. But have conventional politicians like Peters been providing the innovative, outside-the-box solutions we badly need?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Write to [email protected]

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