Last year, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven Detroit students, claiming that severe underfunding, mismanagement and discrimination had deprived them of a quality education. The suit specifically claims that the students were denied “access to literacy,” which they argue is a constitutional right.
Detroit’s education system underwent some significant changes in recent years. After taking office in 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature set out to dramatically expand the charter school system. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, often by for-profit corporations and multi-billionaires. The current Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, was a key player in the proliferation of charter schools in Michigan and worked closely with the legislature on “education reform.” But over five years later, the results, as the class action lawsuit lays bare, have been shocking, to say the least.
The suit details the conditions inside the Detroit charter school system. A summary has been compiled below.
“The physical conditions of the schools are unsafe and include vermin infestation, extreme temperatures, insufficient or inappropriate facilities, and overcrowding. The schools lack the capacity to meet students’ social-emotional needs and the learning needs of English Learners. As a result of the incredible challenge of teaching at these school sites, schools predictably lack sufficiently qualified teachers. Instead, schools are characterized by illogical or inadequate allocation of resources and the complete lack of any considered policy or system for the delivery of education.”
Condition of textbooks:
“Many classes do not have books, and the books that are available are decades out of date, damaged and defaced, with taped spines and missing pages. Not one school has textbooks for students to bring home, and therefore teachers, despite their best efforts, cannot assign meaningful regular homework. One second-grade class did not have any English Language Arts books, and the books they did have were mostly picture books. One student’s second-grade teacher sometimes directed her to use the computer for educational purposes, but the computers are frequently broken or unable to connect to the Internet and she often spends her computer time staring at a scratched screen. The third floor of the building technically had a library, but there was no librarian and students were not permitted to access the library or check out books without a teacher escort. Most of the time, the library remained locked.”
“An ELA teacher told her twelfth-grade students that she didn’t have their literature books yet because she was still taping them back together. A U.S. History class had only 5 textbooks for a class of 28 students, and an economics teacher had 25 textbooks for 118 students. A single classroom set of chemistry textbooks is used by the approximately 200 students enrolled in chemistry each year. In 2015, an outside non-profit threw away the books in the library because they were deemed too old. The books have not been replaced. There are no textbooks for the Earth Science, Physics, or Research and Development science classes, so the teachers in each of those classes rely on a section of the Biology textbook most closely related to the subject they are teaching. Because students periodically have to share textbooks for classwork, they are often unable to complete the day’s assignment, especially when the books being shared are defaced and have missing pages. Many teachers seek to make up for the lack of books by photocopying assignments, but the copy machine is frequently broken.”
“To make up for the shortfall in instructional materials and other basic supplies, including books, pens, pencils, notepaper, and printer paper, teachers in all of the schools frequently pay out of their own pockets or privately raise money online. It is not uncommon for a teacher to spend more than a thousand dollars on school supplies in a single year, and some spend as much as $5000, roughly one-sixth of their annual salary. At all of the schools, teachers applied for grants, requested donations on donorschoose.com to obtain textbooks and classroom supplies, scavenged yard sales, or solicited donations from friends and families. Many teachers attempt to utilize technology to compensate for these shortcomings, but there are insufficient computers at the school sites, and the Internet connections are often too weak to accommodate more than one class at a time. Moreover, many of the students lack access to the Internet outside of school; a 2015 article in the Detroit Free Press found that 70% of Detroit students have no Internet access at home.”
“Students face unsafe and unsanitary physical conditions that make learning nearly impossible. Overcrowding, failure to regulate temperature, dangerous or missing equipment, pervasive rodents, and the other conditions described here mean that sustained, consistent instruction cannot occur in these schools. The City of Detroit admitted that during the 2015-16 academic year, none of the school district’s buildings were in compliance with city health and safety codes. No entity has taken steps to address learning-prohibitive physical conditions in Plaintiffs’ schools, including extreme temperatures and excessive overcrowding.”
“All of the schools that are currently operating have been infested by vermin. Students and teachers have frequently encountered mice, mice droppings, rats, bedbugs, and/or cockroaches. Teachers keep canisters of Raid on their desks to address the many cockroaches throughout the school. One teacher was forced to work on a computer next to a decomposing mouse that produced a horrible smell. Classes are interrupted by students calling the teacher over to kill a cockroach or screaming as a mouse runs across the floor. One school is frequently filled with yellow-jackets and multiple students and teachers have been stung.”
“Absent or malfunctioning heating and air conditioning systems subject students and teachers to extreme temperatures, sometimes necessitating school closings or early dismissal. All of the schools periodically experience classroom temperatures that range from so cold the students can see their breath to above 90 degrees. During the summer, one school’s west-facing classroom reached 110 degrees. The windows either couldn’t open or had to remain closed because they were unstable and would crash down unpredictably. On the first day of the 2016-17 school year, the temperatures in the school grew so extreme that multiple students fainted, both students and teachers got so sick they threw up, and multiple teachers developed heat rashes. In contrast, the heat did not come on for several days after the students returned from winter break in the 2015-16 school year, and the students and teachers had to wear winter coats, hats, and scarves and could see their breath. Students visibly shiver throughout the day. The boilers are not up to code and the windows are damaged.”
“The physical conditions of school buildings are decrepit and unsafe. One school’s playground equipment, which is designed for 2-5 year olds, although the school serves children ages 5-14, is frequently broken. One of the playground slides is disconnected at the base so it shifts around, and the other has cracks with sharp pieces of plastic sticking out. Multiple students have sliced or otherwise injured themselves while playing. Students also find bullets, used condoms, sex toys, and dead vermin on the playground. At another school, the only outside area for the students to play was a small, fenced-in rectangle in front of the school, so the school held recess across the street in an open field where it could not control access from individuals who might pose a threat to the children.”
“Ceilings frequently buckle or collapse, raining plaster onto the floor. Floors are often covered in water from leaks, causing students to slip and fall and generating moldy smells. Buckets are put out to catch rainwaiter or melting snow. The walls in corner classrooms are water-stained, and water-soaked tiles periodically fall from the ceiling, sometimes hitting students in the middle of class. One school’s roof was not repaired until the principal obtained an outside grant through a private foundation to cover the costs. In one classroom, a window that fell out was not fixed for over a year. During the winter of 2015-16, the teacher covered the gaping hole with corrugated cardboard, duct tape, and a bookcase. The sewage periodically backs up, leading to waterlogged carpets and mold.”
“School meals feature moldy bread and expired milk. The students know not to drink out of the water fountains, which are frequently infested with cockroaches and maggots. The seats in the auditorium are broken, and the entrance to the school is riddled with potholes, causing students and parents to twist their ankles on the way into the building. Bullet holes in walls and classroom windows go unrepaired. Toilets, urinals, sinks, and locker room showers are regularly out of order, and the bathrooms lack toilet paper and soap. The water fountains are filthy or sealed off with plastic or unusable because they are contaminated with lead. Walking through the halls and bathrooms, students see broken water fountains and toilets covered in black garbage bags. At one school, urine frequently leaks out of the men’s room and soaks the carpet in the hallway, causing the hallway to smell for days.”
“During the 2015-16 school year, a fire broke out in the school and students were given no notice to evacuate because the Osborn fire alarm system failed. One teacher became aware of the fire only after a student opened the door and thick smoke poured inside. The alarm system was not fixed until teachers called the fire marshal, and there continue to be missing fire extinguishers.”
“Students outnumber desks, and students are squeezed together so tightly that teachers cannot walk through the room. Desks are crammed wall-to-wall, with no room for aisles. One classroom had 42 students but only 32 desks. Another classroom had 52 students but only 37 chairs and fewer desks. The overcrowding also significantly exacerbates the extreme heat at many points during the year.”
Meeting Students’ Needs:
“After one student was kidnapped and murdered, his classmates were not provided any opportunity to grieve. No additional counselors were brought in, and the teachers were not offered any support or training on how to speak with the students about the tragedy. Instead, on the day the police found the boy’s body, the only school-wide reaction was an announcement by loudspeaker to remind the students, who were using their phones to share details about what happened and to communicate their grief, that cell phones were not allowed at school.”
“When children act in ways motivated by the trauma they have experienced, or act out due to embarrassment over their inability to perform basic academic tasks successfully, the schools’ response is to punish and exclude them from the classroom, rather than to implement restorative practices for support and healing.”
Providing Instruction to English Learners (“ELs”):
“Schools also serve a number of students whose first language is not English. But despite representations to the contrary, schools employ no teachers trained in the delivery of EL instruction and provide no dedicated EL instruction whatsoever. In the upper grades, about 20 of the approximately 80 students were English learners, but the English language class available to them covered the same elementary phrases for two years. As a result, multiple students never obtained even basic English proficiency and were unable to follow any of the material covered in core classes. Instead of being given the support that she needed in English language instruction, one student, who was more comfortable in Spanish than in English, was frequently called upon to assist her Spanish-speaking classmates by summarizing the material for them in Spanish. Some students relied on Google Translate in order to teach themselves English, although many students did not have access to the Internet outside of school. One student stole his history textbook so that he could translate it at home using his phone. One parent was unaware until recently that her sons were so far behind because she received English-only report cards for them.”
“Schools lack a sufficient, and sufficiently stable, set of qualified and properly trained teaching staff. Given the challenging teaching and learning conditions in these schools, they unsurprisingly experience high teacher turnover. Teachers are frequently subject to salary freezes, and many feel they must spend their own meager salaries to make up for shortfalls in classroom supplies and instructional materials. Heavy reliance on Teach for America instructors, who typically stay for only two to three years, also contributes to high turnover. Failure to provide adequate support to students who have experienced adversity also results in burnout and vicarious trauma among teachers. The frequent teacher turnover predictably creates teaching vacancies, some of which occur during the school year because teachers cannot continue working in these conditions or they are forced to take medical leaves.”
“There are hundreds of vacancies each school year. These vacancies are typically filled by non-certificated paraprofessionals, substitutes, or misassigned teachers who lack any expertise or knowledge in the course content. At one school, the middle school science classes at Hamilton are currently taught by a paraprofessional who states that she does not understand the material and cannot lead classroom experiments. One math teacher left several weeks after the start of the 2015 school year due to frustration with large class sizes and lack of support. He was temporarily replaced by a paraprofessional and then a special education teacher. Eventually, the highest performing eighth grade student was asked to take over teaching both seventh and eighth grade math. This student taught both math classes for a month. Due to overcrowding, the kindergarten and second grade classrooms were split in half early in the 2015-16 school year, but the school was unable to find additional teachers so the new classes were covered by long-term substitutes for the remainder of the school year.”
“Approximately half of the 25 teachers who started at one school in the fall of 2012 quit by the end of the second semester. By the end of the second year, the high school science teacher had changed seven times, the high school history teacher three times, the high school math teacher more than five times, and the high school English teacher six times. After the Spanish teacher quit, teachers who were not certificated to teach Spanish but who happened to know some Spanish took over teaching the Spanish classes on a rotating schedule. After the physical education teacher quit, the homeroom teachers surrendered their prep periods to cover gym class until it was eliminated altogether.”
“As a result of these stressful and appalling conditions, some teachers in these schools miss classes. Some teachers are absent as many as 50 days in one year. Unsurprisingly, short-term substitute teachers often cannot be obtained. When a teacher is absent and no short-term substitute is available, classes are frequently combined, so one teacher may have up to 60 students in a single classroom. The budget for short-term substitute teachers is generally exhausted by January. After this date, classes are typically covered by paraprofessionals or by teachers from other classes who have a preparation period. If no teacher or paraprofessional is available, the students are split up and sent to sit in other classrooms with no regard to age group or subject matter. In addition, because of the substitute shortage, teachers were told that they would be able to use only 5 of their 10 allotted sick days and would be docked pay for any additional days they took off.”
“In high schools, other teachers must sacrifice their prep periods to cover classes for absent teachers. Students at one school, for example, estimate that they have a substitute teacher or no teacher at all during at least one, and often two, class periods a day. The teachers estimate they are asked to cover for an absent teacher approximately twice per week. If no teacher is available, two classes are often combined, resulting in upwards of 60 students in a single classroom. When a teacher is asked to substitute or classrooms are combined, that teacher’s qualifications to teach the relevant subject matter are not considered. In other circumstances, classes may be covered by administrators, security guards, paraprofessionals, or no one at all. When there is no adult available to staff a classroom, sometimes students are permitted to sit in classrooms or the gym unsupervised. At one school, students were frequently sent to other classrooms that could accommodate all the students. They would then be shown a movie, such as Kung Fu Panda 3 or Frozen. At one point in the 2015-16 school year, so many teachers were absent and so few substitutes were available that over 80 students gathered in the gym despite no physical education class being scheduled for that time.”
Some success story, huh? Betsy Devos is currently exporting it to the rest of the country.
Unfortunately, the lawsuit was tossed by a U.S. District Court judge. The plaintiffs are appealing the ruling.