ACLU Blasts State for Arguing It Has No Responsibility for Kids in EM-Run Districts

June 20, 2013

DETROIT – In briefs filed today in the class-action lawsuit challenging the quality of education Highland Park students receive, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a judge to reject the State of Michigan’s claim that it has no responsibility for literacy in Highland Park and enjoys “broad immunity” from the lawsuit because of the new emergency manager law.

Further, the ACLU pressed the court to deny the emergency manager and School District’s motion to dismiss the case after discovering that a school administrator asked teaching aides at Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School to backdate Daily Service Logs to make it appear that students were receiving individualized assistance when, in fact, they were not.

The ACLU and State of Michigan will be back in court for a hearing next week on June 27 at 9 a.m. in Wayne County Circuit Court.

“The evidence we’ve uncovered that logs were backdated to cover-up the failure to provide required services shows exactly why the State’s argument that it is immune from all its own decisions and those taken by an Emergency Manager is irresponsible,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “There should be an independent investigation of The Leona Group and an independent commission established to ensure that some form of quality control is placed over the selection of charter schools.”

The Leona Group was selected last spring by the Emergency Manager to take over the Highland Park School District after offering only a one month window for charter schools to submit bids for the work.

Moss continued: “the State’s argument that it is immune would, if successful, mean that children in less affluent districts under the control of an emergency manager could not enforce their civil rights while families in affluent districts run by elected school boards could do so, creating a two-tier system of justice that is completely unacceptable.”

Daily Service Logs are school records that memorialize the services teaching aides and para-educators perform as part of individualized education programs dedicated to providing students with special learning assistance. The ACLU provided an affidavit from Ms. Sara Midds, a former teaching aide, that recounts how a Leona administrator instructed the assembled teaching staff to take the Daily Service Logs home and back date them within twenty-four hours because “the State or the ACLU’s expert was coming in.”

Midds, who had been working for the Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School since August 2012, testified that she knew that at least four of the other teaching aides had not been serving in teaching positions before November 2012 and so had not performed any teaching activities for the period covered by the backdating. Ms. Midds was distressed by the request to falsify school records and resigned her position two weeks later, after refusing to backdate any records.

As Midds’ affidavit indicates, some of the altered school records were used by Leona Superintendent Pamela Williams to demonstrate to the State or to the ACLU’s expert that Leona was implementing adequate remedial programs. That ACLU’s expert, Dr. Elizabeth Moje, acting Dean of the University of Michigan’s Department of Education, spent several days in January evaluating the quality of literacy instruction.

“We were told to backdate the logs because experts were coming in to check up on the school,” said Midds. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I knew I hadn’t done the work and there’s no way anyone else had either because we weren’t working with kids directly until November. It’s a shame that the school put energy into making all of this up instead of actually doing the work to help the kids.”

In addition to the brief, the ACLU also filed the expert report from Dr. Moje that she prepared after the visit in which she concluded that the State, emergency manager/district and charter company failed to provide any of the required components – structured plan, appropriate resources, qualified personnel, sufficient time, and state oversight – needed to bring students’ reading skills to grade level within twelve months as required by law.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a Michigan law, MCL 380.1278(8), that requires districts to provide additional remedial assistance to students who are not performing at grade level in the 4th and 7th grades. In addition, Michigan’s Constitution requires that “the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law” and singles out education as a uniquely important state function.

Newly released 2012 MEAP test results paint a bleak picture for the coming school year. In the 2013-14 year, no fewer than 78.9 percent of current fourth graders and 73 percent of current seventh graders will require the special intervention mandated by statute. By contrast, entering the 2012-13 school year, 65 percent of then-fourth graders and 75 percent of then-seventh graders required statutory intervention. In effect, more children will require special reading assistance this coming year than in the year that just ended. Yet, judging by this past year’s results, the state, district and charter company have no program in place to systematically deliver the reading assistance that is mandated.

The ACLU asks Judge Marvin Stempien, who is taking over Judge Robert Ziolkowski’s docket while he is on leave, to reject the State and emergency managers/district motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

This lawsuit, the first-of-its-kind “right to read” challenge, was originally filed in July 2012 on behalf of eight students who represent nearly 1,000 children attending K-12 public schools in Highland Park, Mich against the State of Michigan, its agencies charged with overseeing public education and the Highland Park School District for failing to take effective steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level as set forth by state law and Constitution.

Through its lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan is seeking an immediate remedy by the state, including research-based methods of instruction, highly trained educators and administrators, a process for monitoring progress, new educational materials and textbooks, and a clean and safe learning environment.

We only ask that the state fulfill its obligation to our students and provide them with a quality education, which is every child’s right,” said Moss.

Less than 10 percent of the district’s students in grades third through eighth are proficient in reading and math, based on Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) scores. By 11th grade, less than 10 percent of students scoring proficient in reading or math on the Michigan Merit Exam (MME) in 2011. An independent evaluation to assess the reading proficiency of the plaintiffs found that students were reading between four and eight grades below their current grade level.

Key News and Documents

Read Dr. Elizabeth Moje’s report evaluating the quality of literacy instruction in Highland Park 

Read Sara Midds’ affidavit alleging Highland Park falsified school documents

Read the ACLU’s brief in opposition to the State’s motion to dismiss

Read the ACLU's brief in opposition against the Highland Park School District and the Emergency Manager

Read more about the conditions in Highland Park and our lawsuit