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Why teachers won Detroit's 'sick-out' case

A court has ruled in favor of teachers who protested the poor working conditions in Detroit schools by calling in sick, as the district struggles to function while covering its debt. 

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    Jordyn Dearing, a Nichols Elementary School student, attends a union rally with her mother, who teaches at her school, outside Detroit Public Schools offices on May 2, 2016. A court has ruled in favor of teachers who protested the poor working conditions in Detroit schools as the district struggles to function while covering its debt.
    Daniel Mears/The Detroit News/AP/File
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An eight-month court battle – between Detroit's struggling school district and teachers accused of inciting illegal strikes – ended Friday with a court decision in the teachers' favor. 

Two teachers won the months-long case against the school district because their protests were essentially political rather than work-related, Ann Zaniewski reported for the Detroit Free Press. The court decided that if teachers see politics as the cause of work-related problems, then complaints about those work conditions – even taking the form of intentional sick-outs – receive First Amendment protection. 

The ruling emphasized teachers' rights to protest, and signaled a victory for parents and administrators, wrote the Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo in January:

After more than a decade of losing enrollment and amassing debt largely under state-appointed emergency managers, the Detroit public school district could be on the verge of writing a new chapter for itself – one in which educators, students, and parents insist on taking back control of their destiny.

Through a series of “sick-outs” that forced more than half of schools to close in recent weeks, teachers “have effectively made the argument that we’re seeing a lack of accountability,” says Thomas Pedroni, a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan who has studied the impact of education policies in Detroit and the state. 

Teachers closed schools 14 times during the 2016 school year with strikes protesting the state's emergency management of Detroit schools, The Wall Street Journal reported. Leaders at the state and local level criticized them as hurting the already-struggling effort to educate Detroit's children, but the union insisted the strikes brought attention to problems hurting teachers and students alike.

“If the ceilings are falling down, we sweep up, go back to business as usual,” said Ellen Morgan, a 2nd grade teacher at Spain Elementary Middle-School, to WXYZ Detroit in January.

Detroit Public Schools accused Steve Conn and Nicole Conaway of leading teacher strikes – illegal under Michigan law – to protest the poor conditions in schools. But the court ruled in the teachers' favor, saying the sickouts were politically motivated, and therefore fair game for protest, because the teachers objected to the state's emergency takeover plans.

“It’s not just people saying we need greater local control and engagement,” said David Meens, an education researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in an interview with the Monitor.

“People are getting some skin in the game and taking up policy ... saying, ‘We have a right to participate in this conversation.’ ”

The school district and the state, which backed it both politically and with court costs, said sick-outs violated the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act, but the judge said this interpretation of the law "goes far beyond the scope" of the law and "would run afoul of First Amendment protections." 

"I'm very happy, but I'm not surprised at all," Mr. Conn, one of the defendants, told the Detroit Free Press. "The judge clearly agreed with the rest of us that we were speaking on the political plane concerning the state takeover of the district."

One major cause for a May teacher strike – a threat that crushing debt would cause the district to withhold pay – was resolved July 1 with when the Michigan legislature created a new district called Detroit Public Schools Community District, leaving Detroit Public Schools with the sole function of collecting funds and paying off debt, and freeing up money for the schools' operating costs.  

"This influx of money just puts the Detroit Public Schools on an even footing with other education providers such as charter schools,” Eric Lupher, the president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, told the Monitor in June. “Safety, maintenance, and staffing issues still remain the same.”

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