Michigan Court Holds State Must Enforce Statute to Provide Special Assistance to Students Not Meeting State Standards


Holding that the state is ultimately responsible under Art. 8 of the state constitution for ensuring the integrity of the state’s system of public education, Justice Robert L. Ziolkowski of the Circuit Court, Wayne County late last month denied the state’s motion to summarily dispose of claims by students in the Highland Park school district that the state and the local officials had failed to implement a state statute that requires “special assistance” for students not meeting state standards in reading.

The student population of the Highland Park district is 99.59% African-American and 82% of the students meet federal school lunch eligibility criteria. Only 35% of its fourth graders and 25% of seventh graders met proficiency standards on the  latest state-wide reading examination. In math, only 13% of 4th grade students and 7% of seventh graders meet the proficiency standard. The district has also suffered from financial mismanagement in recent years; as a result, the governor appointed a State Emergency Manager to oversee the affairs of the district, and the manager has chosen a for-profit outside group to run the district. Plaintiffs allege in their complaint that both the state and the local officials have focused solely on the financial problems of the district and have paid insufficient attention to the students’ educational needs.

A Michigan statute, MCL 380.1278(8), provides that students who have not achieved satisfactorily on the fourth and seventh grade reading tests “ shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.” Plaintiffs claim that the school district defendants have failed to carry out this responsibility and that the state defendants have failed to enforce the statute, even though Highland Park is “one of the worst districts in the state” in terms of reading achievement.  Rejecting defendants’ argument that the statute “does not impose a clear legal duty of a ministerial nature” regarding how the statute should be enforced, the court held that the statute “sets a standard of special assistance that is reasonably expected to accomplish the goal of enabling the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.”

The court also rejected defendants’ claims that the statute did not provide a private right of action and that the plaintiffs have no standing to bring the claims. The plaintiffs had also set forth an interesting equal protection claim, based not on a right to equal funding, but on a right to “basic educational opportunities equal to those children in other districts receive.” The court dismissed this claim because the complaint contained no specific facts alleging that the treatment of pupils in the Highland Park district is different from the treatment of pupils in other districts in the state of Michigan.

The case is now set to go to trial on July 22, 2013. Plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Michigan.

July 10, 2013

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