Courts Education

Students Have Fundamental Right to Literacy, Appeals Court Says

A federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that students in Detroit have a right to a “basic minimum education” ensuring literacy.

Gary B., et al. v. Whitmer, et al. was filed by students on behalf of students in the Detroit Public Schools system. It argued that conditions in the schools had deprived them of a basic education that allows a chance at foundational literacy. The 2016 case was based on the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses, and noted factors that contributed to poor conditions in the school district, including “missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials.” The defendants were Michigan state officials and argued that Michigan district leaders should have been those sued; they also claimed that there was no fundamental right to access to literacy. A federal district court found the defendants the proper targets but dismissed the students’ claims on merit in 2018.

The case then went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which in this 2-1 decision effectively sent the lawsuit will now be sent back to a federal judge in Detroit for further review.

“Every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning that access to literacy is necessary to access our political process,” wrote Judge Eric Clay in a majority opinion.

Judge Eric Murphy dissented, writing that, “I see nothing in the complaint that gives federal judges the power to oversee Detroit’s schools in the name of the United States Constitution.”

The case only applies to students in Detroit, but it joins a new movement for educational equity based on literacy claims. Ella T. v. State of California, decided in February, mandated that state officials must introduce legislation that will establish a $50 million block grant program to develop high-quality literacy programs for California’s 75 lowest-performing schools. Law professor Derek Black noted, “If replicated, [the Detroit] ruling could raise the level of education for disadvantaged students across the nation.”

Mark Rosenbaum, who worked with both the Detroit students and the California students to bring the lawsuits, said, “It sends a powerful statement across the country. It’s a victory for all children who deserve a basic, minimal education.”

Sources: Washington Post 04/24/20; NBC 04/23/20; Washington Post 02/23/20.


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