Seven Detroit students and their Jewish attorney sued the state over their lack of basic literacy.
A large brick building with caging on the windows, metal detectors and security guards greet guests when they arrive at Osborn High School in northeast Detroit. Rodents, garbage cans and unusable bathrooms abound. There aren’t enough desks, teachers or books.
Welcome to public school in Detroit.
“It really felt like I was going into a jail, more so than school,” Osborn grad Jamarria Hill said.
Twenty-year-old Hill grew up in the city of Detroit. He was just 15 years old when attorney Mark Rosenbaum approached him, his father and his other basketball teammates after one of their summer games.
Rosenbaum informed Hill and his father, who was the athletic director and basketball coach at Osborn, about the opportunity to join a lawsuit that would fight for a better education and a constitutional right to literacy.
“If the schools are bad and torn down, then the neighborhood is bad and torn down,” Hill said. “Then when there are schools being closed and incarceration centers being built, and then they’re looking at our test scores to predict, not just what job or career we will have, but if we’re going to be in jail or dead.
“So, basically, it was like, how can we be productive citizens to society without education?”
Growing up, Hill attended charter schools. Arriving at Osborn for high school was his first experience with Detroit public schools.
“I took school for granted, as most people do when they have a great school foundation,” Hill said. “My mom always told me how bad Detroit public schools were because she grew up in Detroit public schools, but I never really understood what she meant by it until I got into high school.”
In 2016, Hill and six other students from Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPS) had had enough of these conditions. They sued the state of Michigan and then-Gov. Rick Snyder (later, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer became the lead named defendant), claiming they were not taught how to read during their time in the low-performing schools of Detroit. Rosenbaum was their lead attorney.
The case, also known as the “Right to Read” lawsuit, argued that all children have a constitutional right to literacy and to a basic minimum education. The lawsuit went on for four years and ended this June in a landmark settlement.
And Rosenbaum, a Los Angeles-based attorney who has spent decades spearheading big legal battles for civil rights, found himself returning to Michigan — a state where he completed his own undergraduate education and taught law for decades — in order to sue it. But he saw it as a fight worth having.
“I don’t think there’s a more important fight in this country than the fight to see that all kids have a fair education,” Rosenbaum said. “As long as they don’t have access to literacy, the nation isn’t a democracy and isn’t true to its ideals.”
A Path to Social Justice
Rosenbaum didn’t always see himself as a lawyer.
He was raised in Cincinnati as a Reform Jew and attended Sunday school at the city’s Hebrew Union College as a child. He completed his undergraduate degree in pre-med at the University of Michigan, but then made a big change.
“My father had been forced to leave medical school due to the Great Depression,” Rosenbaum said. “I was supposed to pick up the mantle and become a doctor, but it wasn’t my passion. I heard a radical lawyer talk about what it meant to be a lawyer during the ’60s, the rule of law and how to represent activists for civil rights, and that had a profound impact on me.”
Instead of medical school, he attended Harvard Law School. When Rosenbaum arrived, he was “flabbergasted that every law student wasn’t studying to become a civil rights lawyer.” He didn’t even realize that there were other types of law. But he knew that he was meant to fight for civil rights.
After graduating from Harvard, Rosenbaum’s law career began by taking on antiwar and Vietnam War cases, which took him to Los Angeles. He worked for 40 years with the ACLU in L.A., and for more than 20 years was also teaching at U-M’s law school.
Frequently commuting from L.A. to Ann Arbor was a drain, but the nature of Rosenbaum’s work allowed him to make connections with the ACLU of Detroit. Eventually, that would lead him to the “right to read” lawsuit.
Although he says he’s drifted away from the formal aspects of Judaism, he was always aware of social justice and cultural traditions.
“I wouldn’t say my religious upbringing formally had a huge impact on me, but I was schooled and aware of Jews playing an important role in advancing social justice. And that was life-changing for me,” Rosenbaum said.
He currently works for the pro-bono legal firm Public Counsel, where he is directing attorney for the firm’s Opportunity Under Law project, which focuses on economic injustice.
To Rosenbaum, returning to Michigan was significant because “being in Michigan was transformative for my life and made me a better person. I was born in Cincinnati, but my real home is Michigan.”
A Dive into the Lawsuit
Rosenbaum has been involved with many educational equality cases, such as Williams v. California, a lawsuit where he secured over $1 billion for underserved schools to buy textbooks, hire qualified teachers and provide safe and sanitary school facilities. But nothing could have prepared him for what he’d find in Detroit.
Rosenbaum was informed by community and teacher groups that he has previously worked with about the obstacles that DPS students had been facing. These firsthand accounts of what was happening inside DPS contributed to his decision to pursue this case.
Some students did not have a teacher in their classroom; temperatures in the schools ranged from below freezing to 90 degrees due to lack of proper heating/cooling equipment; and some students and teachers had even passed out because of the heat.
What Rosenbaum saw lined up with what Hill experienced as a Detroit public schools’ student.
On a typical day in class, “we’re all watching a movie because there’s not a teacher available to teach us,” Hill said. “It’s sad because it’s more so like a daycare than a school and we’re learning at a third- and fourth-grade level comprehension instead of high school work.”
It was evident to Rosenbaum that students were not being given age-appropriate instruction and were often graduating from school without knowledge of even basic reading.
In 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress rated Detroit lowest in average reading scores compared to 26 other urban school districts. That year, only 6% of students in Detroit public schools performed at or above the NAEP’s “Proficient” level in reading.
And if students don’t learn literacy in school, they often never will. A 2011 report found that 47% of adults in Detroit were functionally illiterate.
“I never met a student who had a book to take home. The books that they had in a classroom were older than they were, and most had been obtained by teachers at garage sales or through donor websites,” Rosenbaum said, contrasting the conditions at DPS with those of the school districts in nearby, wealthier communities. “For any of us to be aware of those sorts of injustices while children in Bloomfield Hills and Ann Arbor are on campuses that could double for college campuses is not right.”
Rosenbaum decided to take on the issue and truly find the root of the problem.
He met with DPS teachers and had them speak to some of the students and parents about joining his lawsuit. He also had reached out to organizations in the community that worked with the same kids.
“I think the families wanted to make sure that their children did better than they did. I don’t think for those of us who are privileged, that we really understand what strength it takes to say, ‘I can’t read,’ or ‘I can’t do basic math,’” Rosenbaum said.
“I had one young man that was a senior and was at the top of his class, and he had never read a novel. He couldn’t write a three-paragraph essay. But he wasn’t involved in this lawsuit for himself, but rather for his siblings so they could have a chance at an education. So, I just think it was part of their character in terms of wanting to stand up to the state and say, ‘You can’t treat us like we’re less than human.’”
After some time, Rosenbaum had found the ideal group of seven students to represent: a group ranging from elementary school to high school, to communicate the full scope of the problem. He began to assemble his case.
They began by suing then-Gov. Snyder in 2016, claiming that the state is responsible for the lack of literacy and that students have a conditional right to a basic minimal education. The complaint was then dismissed by the state. From there, the case went to a federal district court in Detroit in front of Judge Stephen Murphy in 2018.
In his decision, Murphy agreed that the state is responsible for the lack of literacy the students are experiencing in DPS. But, he decided, there has never been a case that has ruled that students have constitutional right of access to literacy or to a basic minimal education. There was no constitutional precedent for a “right to read.”
Rosenbaum appealed Murphy’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles all federal appeals in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan. By this point, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had been elected and replaced Snyder as the defendant in the case. She indicated she was interested in settling the suit without having it drag out further and began negotiations.
In April 2020, for the first time in U.S. history, the court ruled two-to-one that every student has a constitutional right to a basic minimum education. The dissenting judge, Eric Murphy, voted against the ruling because he believed that it violated states’ rights to determine their own educational policies.
After the ruling, Rosenbaum and Whitmer, the chief defendant in the case, began confidential settlement discussions and the case was ultimately settled.
The settlement ensures that the state will pay a total of $40,000 to each student that was represented in the case. The money is to go toward continuing their education or helping them pay for additional help to make up for the deficiencies they experienced in school. $2.7 million is also set to go to the Detroit Public Schools district.
In addition, Whitmer has promised to pursue legislation that would bring an additional $94 million to the district. The money will go to increasing teacher salary, literacy aides, literacy coaches, new literacy materials and fixing up the buildings.
Unfortunately, the constitutional right did not survive. In May the Michigan state legislature attempted to make the court rehear the case, which the court declined to do in June, on the grounds that a settlement had already been reached. In so doing, the court vacated all other pending motions in the appeal — including the finding of the constitutional right.
“Even after we won, the legislature went into court and said it was too expensive to give these kids even basic education. I mean, my God, you know, the schools would not pass basic health and safety tests,” Rosenbaum said. “If they were hotels or restaurants, they would be shut down. And it is devastating to see how far those who are in charge will fight and lie to make sure that kids of color and kids from low-income families don’t have a fair shot.”
Although the constitutional right for a basic minimum education was vacated, Rosenbaum still hopes that this case will improve the education of Detroit’s students and resonate with people throughout the country as a stepping-stone for educational growth.
“I think it’s a reinforcement that [the students’] voices and their lives matter. I think it demonstrates to them that they can beat back the forces of the state and that they have a higher moral and legal ground,” Rosenbaum said. “I think it demonstrates that anti-racist struggles will prevail. I think these young people know that they won in terms of delivering the sorts of resources and opportunities that they’re entitled to. I think it will make a difference, but the degree to which it makes a difference, I don’t think we’re going to know until the next few years play out.”
From the beginning, Hill knew that he wasn’t doing this just for himself, but for his younger siblings and the younger generations of students that will go through Detroit Public Schools. It was never about the money for Hill; it was the hope that this case will help make the change that the children in Detroit Public Schools desperately need.
“We don’t want the money, and we don’t want a handout,” Hill said. “We just want an opportunity and a chance. So, it really set in that, just as hard as we’re fighting to get the education we deserve, they’re fighting 10 times harder to make sure that it doesn’t happen.
“A lot of times in the city, things get passed in court and are never implemented; it’s just a ruling. … So, this money, if it doesn’t go toward productive things, it can be a waste. If it doesn’t really truly impact our students and if we’re not involved in it, then it won’t make a difference for our students.”
Hill used the money that he was allotted from the lawsuit to enroll in college. He currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida, and is enrolled at Florida A&M University. He hopes to continue to fight for the right to education for students not just in Detroit, but all around the country.
“This is deeper than just education or just school,” Hill said. “It is humanity, and it is our lives. How can we be productive citizens to society without education?
“We have to stand up.”