Detroit students have fundamental right to literacy, appeals court rules

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Left to right: Osborn college adviser Andrea Jackson, Jamarria Hall, Public Counsel’s Mark Rosenbaum, and co-counsel Mike Kelley in front of Osborn High School. - PHOTO COURTESY ANNE HUDSON-PRICE
  • Photo courtesy Anne Hudson-Price
  • Left to right: Osborn college adviser Andrea Jackson, Jamarria Hall, Public Counsel’s Mark Rosenbaum, and co-counsel Mike Kelley in front of Osborn High School.

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Detroit public schools students, which argued the district deprived the students of their right to an education while it was run by state-appointed emergency managers. The 2-1 ruling was issued Thursday.

The case could head to the U.S. Supreme Court.



"The state provision of a basic minimum education has a longstanding presence in our history and tradition, and is essential to our concept of ordered constitutional liberty," the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. "Under the Supreme Court’s substantive due process cases, this suggests it should be recognized as a fundamental right."

The ruling stems from a 2016 lawsuit filed on behalf of the students against former Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Board of Education, and various other state officials. The lawsuit described the deteriorating conditions in Detroit's schools under state-appointed emergency management. (You know, the same concept that brought us the Flint water crisis.) The suit describes deplorable conditions at the schools, including a "lack of textbooks and basic materials; overcrowded classrooms; failure to address students' specific learning needs; lack of English Language Learner instruction; and unqualified staff," among other complaints.



In 2017, the state moved to dismiss the case, saying students have no constitutional right to an education. In 2018, U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III agreed.

But in an opinion filed Thursday, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric L. Clay wrote that the "Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to a basic minimum education":

The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance.

Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history has led the American people universally to expect it. And education—at least in the minimum form discussed here—is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government. Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.

Where, as Plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy. Accordingly, while the current versions of Plaintiffs’ equal protection and compulsory attendance claims were appropriately dismissed, the district court erred in denying their central claim: that Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy. The district court’s order is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the ruling "a major step forward."

"Literacy is something every child should have a fair chance to attain," Duggan said in a statement. "We hope instead of filing another appeal, the parties sit down and focus on how to make literacy available to every child in Michigan."

You can read Judge Clay's full opinion below.

See related PDF 2020.04.23__.01__Opinion.pdf
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