School Daze: State-Appointed Emergency Manager Still Shirking Duty to Provide Reading Intervention to Highland Park

September 11, 2015

This month heralds the beginning of a new school year—a time of excitement, hope and promise for most our state’s children. 

Over the summer, the district’s Emergency Manager (EM) and the Leona Group shuttered the doors of the city’s high school, leaving children to scramble for schools in Detroit and beyond that might still have spaces left for them. 

Many families fear that the Highland Park Renaissance Academy—Barber Campus, which houses only Pre-K through Grade 8, is next on the chopping block. 

As if this wasn’t enough, the Highland Park School District and its EM rang in the new school year by asking the Michigan Supreme Court—yet again—to dismiss the “Right to Read” lawsuit that children there have filed in order to secure the crucial reading intervention to which they are entitled by law. 

Emergency managers in Highland Park—the district has seen a series of EMs since 2012—have argued for years that neither the Michigan Constitution nor the Revised School Code places any liability on their district for failing to teach students how to read.  Last week, current EM Donald Weatherspoon went one step further: He claimed that the state’s switch from the MEAP standardized test to the M-STEP test absolves all school districts of the obligation to provide struggling readers with any reading intervention at all.  

As attorneys for plaintiff children in this case, the ACLU of Michigan and cooperating counsel have responded that the EM’s latest claims lack any merit and that the Court should hear the children’s appeal.

Our hearts break for the students left in what remains of the Highland Park School District, particularly those who continue to struggle with reading due to years of poor quality literacy instruction.

It is now clearer than ever that those entrusted with these children’s education have no intention of providing them with the literacy intervention necessary to get them to grade-level reading. In his most recent submission to our state’s highest court, the EM has made clear that not only does he not believe his district is accountable for failing to provide struggling readers with quality literacy instruction—but that going forward it has absolutely no obligation to do so

This position should come as no surprise given that the EM was appointed by the State of Michigan, which is also a defendant in the children’s suit and which has similarly denied any responsibility to provide Highland Park children with high quality literacy intervention. Indeed, it was the State of Michigan that ceded control over these children’s education to an EM who by law is tasked primarily with rectifying the district’s financial emergency, regardless of the consequences on the education of children in that district.

The EM’s latest position is undoubtedly worrisome for the families of Highland Park. But it should also concern families in districts across Michigan because those districts may now be emboldened by an interpretation of the Revised School Code that not only absolves them of liability for not teaching children how to read but removes any mandate for them to do so at all.

And that’s a sad message with which to send our kids off to school.

By Amy Senier, Education Advocacy Attorney for the ACLU of Michigan

(Pictured above: the now-shuttered Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School)