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Public Counsel


Public Counsel respectfully requests the Skillman Foundation’s consideration of a one-year, $30,000 grant to support our monitoring of the settlement agreement with Governor Whitmer in the Detroit public school literacy case. Filed on September 13, 2016, Gary B. v. Snyder seeks to vindicate the rights of Detroit students who are functionally excluded from Michigan’s statewide system of education. The case—which is the first of its kind in the nation—was filed by Public Counsel, Sidley Austin LLP, Miller Cohen PLC, and law professors Erwin Chemerinsky and Evan Caminker. The Plaintiffs are students at five of Detroit’s lowest performing schools: Hamilton Academy, Experiencia Preparatory Academy, Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody, Osborn Academy of Mathematics, and Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. The majority of these students (97%) are Black or Latino, and almost all are low-income.

The settlement agreement, dated May 13, 2020, holds that a basic minimum education, including literacy, is a Constitutional right, and includes an immediate infusion of resources to improve literacy education for public school students in Detroit, with a long-term commitment from Governor Whitmer to secure more funding.

Literacy is—and always has been—the foundation of our nation’s education system. Reading proficiency is fundamental to participation in public and private life, and forms the basis of citizenship in our democracy. Yet across the country, many state policies and practices systemically deny students attending schools with high concentrations of poverty the tools to attain even basic academic proficiency. National achievement data show that young people residing in under-resourced and disenfranchised communities are so many years below grade level proficiency that they are functionally excluded from meaningful participation in our society.

Nowhere is this system of inequality more systemic or damaging than in Detroit. Bounded by the most segregating districts in the country, Detroit students are overwhelmingly African-American or Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged. On average, Detroit students are 2.3 grade levels below their actual grade in reading proficiency, and the schools at issue in Public Counsel’s case have been assigned a zero to sixth percentile ranking in the state. In one of the schools named in our suit—Hamilton Middle School—only 4.2% of students scored proficient or above on the State of Michigan’s 2015-16 English assessment test, compared with 46.0% of third-grade students statewide. In practice, this means that many students have a vocabulary of only a couple hundred words, and some cannot even sound out letters, let alone write sentences or comprehend texts. Moreover, Public Counsel’s investigation has identified deplorable learning conditions in many schools: classrooms without teachers, unsafe building structures, and outdated or nonexistent books.