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Verdicts & Settlements

Federal Court Says Detroit Students Have “Right to Literacy”

— April 23, 2020

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Constitution protects young Americans’ right to education.

A federal appeals court ruled on behalf of Detroit public school students who claim they have a “right to literacy.”

According to Michigan Public Radio, the lawsuit was filed in 2016 on behalf of Detroit’s worst-performing schools. It blames poor academic performance on lackluster conditions inside classrooms—from absent teachers and dilapidated facilities to outdated textbooks and sparse materials.

However, NPR notes that the lawsuit was at first dismissed by U.S. Judge Stephen Murphy III.

Murphy, reiterating the opinion of then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R), found that “access to literacy is not a fundamental right.”

Murphy further said that “the State’s alleged failure to provide literacy access to Plaintiffs fails to state an equal-protection claim on the basis of burdening a fundamental right.”

image of a legal gavel and books
Legal gavel and books; image courtesy of
succo via Pixabay,

But Thursday’s decision, made by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the Constitution does, in fact, protect students’ right to education.

“Though plaintiffs failed to adequately plead their equal protection and compulsory attendance claims, the same cannot be said for their central theory: that they have been denied a basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy,” the panel wrote.

As LegalReader noted in October, the allegations against Detroit Public Schools—and, by extension, Michigan’s Department of Education—were both highly descriptive and extremely controversial. One account, detailed in the initial lawsuit, told the story of an eighth grade who taught math classes for a month after the teacher quit. Another claimed that some high schoolers were being taught with materials intended for elementary students.

And at some Detroit schools, plumbing was in such bad condition that pipes would burst atop ongoing classes.

Jamarria Hall, a 19-year old plaintiff who’d attended Osborn High School in east Detroit, told NBC he’d voluntarily gone to school in the city because his dad was a basketball coach there.

“I didn’t think the curriculum would be that bad,” Hall said.

“I remember walking into the hallway and seeing garbage cans catching drips from the ceiling,” he said. “Seeing the lack of books and how the classrooms had bars and things on the windows and could barely open, and the aroma from I don’t know what. It’s just kind of toxic sickness in the air.”

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney representing some of the students involved in the suit, said the Sixth Circuit’s decision should be praised.

“Every Michigander who loves children should cheer their decision,” he told Michigan Public Radio.

However, the Sixth Circuit’s finding indicated a degree of uncertainty—there is a not-insignificant possibility the case could continue 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 judges wrote. “Under the Supreme Court’s substantive due process cases, this suggests it should be recognized as a fundamental right.”

In the meantime, though, the case will be passed back to the lower courts.


Detroit students have fundamental right to literacy, appeals court rules

Detroit students have the right to an education, federal appeals court rules

Federal Appeals Court sides with Detroit public school students in “literacy” lawsuit

Federal judge dismisses Detroit schools literacy lawsuit


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