Growing Demand for Gov. Whitmer to Settle Historic Right to Literacy Case

By Bankole Thompson

As Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer remains strictly silent over the landmark historic right to literacy case on behalf of Detroit kids, calls are increasing for the governor to speak out publicly in support of the case, and to reach a settlement. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Detroit’s black students in a watershed decision that affirmed their right to literacy protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, strongly urged Gov. Whitmer to abide by the court ruling and settle the case during an extensive 40-minute interview today on my radio show Redline on 910AM Super Station-Detroit.  The governor hasn’t given any public signal about the direction she plans to take on the groundbreaking case, which has serious ramifications on the future of the district. The kind of support the district would need from the state after the court verdict remains unclear.

During the interview, Vitti referenced a letter the district sent to the governor last week that was signed by both him and Iris Taylor, the president of the Detroit Board of Education, urging her to endorse the verdict.  

 “As you know, a federal court of appeals has reached a landmark decision finding that the U.S. Constitution provides a remedy to “children relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy.” Here, the children are Detroit students and the school system is Detroit Public Schools (“DPS”) as managed by the State of Michigan. The decision shines a bright light on the State’s failures toward the school district’s children and employees, mainly teachers. Despite the district’s improvement under an elected empowered school board and appointed superintendent, the legacy of state control will negatively impact children and the community for years. Accountability and justice are required,” the letter stated. “We send this note asking that you settle this matter. We ask that you consider settlement because the record on education simply does not align with the legal position taken by the office and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office in this case. Put another way, your demonstrated understanding of the need to remedy inequity does not support the position of your predecessor or the continuation of this case. Now that this decision has been rendered, there is no better time to settle.”

The April 29 letter added, “We respect your advocacy for traditional public education throughout the state and in Detroit. However, we encourage you to stop listening to attorneys and rely on your instincts. Although the State made small steps in the right direction through the creation of Detroit Public Schools Community District (“DPSCD”) with an empowered locally elected School Board and the restructuring of DPS’ debt, the journey to accountability and investment is not complete. More importantly, the State has not addressed the legacy and current inequities perpetuated within its K-12 funding structure or the deteriorating school building infrastructure that was neglected under state control. Governor, now is the time for you to leverage this decision to make inroads in the historic and current inequity that holds back the potential of our students.”

Vitti said the governor should be conscious of the fact that she will be standing on the right side of history if she settles the case instead of appealing it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mark Totten, a former Democratic nominee for Attorney General in 2014, is the governor’s chief legal counsel. Totten’s office hasn’t commented publicly on the issue. The DPSCD letter urged the governor to follow her instincts, not that of her lawyers.

As The PuLSE Institute noted before, “Gov. Whitmer, contradicted her campaign declaration supporting the right to literacy, failed to champion that right as governor, and actively fought the case after she became governor. The quality and access of education to African Americans has a long, difficult history in this country, as literacy was outlawed for enslaved blacks and black schoolchildren have fought countless battles to demand the education denied to them through Jim Crow policies.”

Today, many urban school districts face challenges that are directly linked to the historic battles to affirm the basic educational rights of black children. And the courts have been the place that have granted black kids redress. 

The strongly worded letter from Vitti and Taylor reminded Whitmer that the problems of the public school system were the product of historic neglect of the district under state oversight.  She is now at the crossroads of either affirming the dignity of black students and that of generations of blacks yet unborn, or appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the future of Detroit kids will hang in the balance.

For many blacks in Detroit, Benton Harbor, Flint and other urban centers across the state, the victorious ruling from the second highest court in the nation is one more step in the protracted fight for an empowering education.  

In a keynote address before the National Bar Association, the umbrella group of black lawyers during its annual meeting in 1988, the late Thurgood Marshall, the first black to be appointed Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and who successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education decision before the Supreme Court, urged blacks to keep fighting for equality and the right to education.

“I don’t care about the Constitution alone or the Declaration of Independence or all the books together. What is important is a goal toward which you’re moving–a goal that is the basis of true democracy above the law. ‘Exactly the Same Rights’ That goal is that a Negro child born to a black mother in a state like Mississippi–born to the dumbest, poorest sharecropper–by merely drawing its first breath in the democracy has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States,” Marshall said. “It’s not true. It never will be true. But I challenge anybody to say it’s not a goal worth working for.”

To underscore the point of his remarks Marshall added, “A recent survey shows that racism is broader and stronger than before. We’re not gaining ground, friends. We might be losing.”

The concerns that Justice Marshall raised decades ago at the NBA meeting are alive in the current right to literacy fight playing out in Detroit, where Detroiters feel like they will be losing if Whitmer decides to appeal the case. 

The ball is now in Gov. Whitmer’s court.

Bankole Thompson, a distinguished journalist and author is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, where his column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of REDLINE, a news magazine and hard-nosed commentary show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs Monday through Friday from 11am-1pm EST. 

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