Education is a fundamental right, appeals court rules in Detroit case

Jamarria Hall, shown here in October, is one of the plaintiffs in a case asking courts to determine whether there is a fundamental right to read. (Bridge file photo by Mike Wilkinson)

In an unprecedented ruling, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that students have a fundamental right to a basic education, based on a lawsuit brought by Detroit students who claimed Michigan hadn’t provided them with proper educational opportunities.

The ruling, which you can read here, is a major victory for Detroit education advocates, and allows the “right-to-read” lawsuit to move forward. The lawsuit had previously been dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

The case will return to court in Detroit, unless the state of Michigan appeals the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, filed in 2016 on behalf of several Detroit students, argued that Michigan, which controlled the Detroit district for years, allowed it to deteriorate so badly that there weren’t enough books, teachers and furniture, creating an atmosphere where learning to read was near impossible.

The ruling could have a sweeping impact not only in Detroit but nationwide: Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on similar cases over the years, it has specifically avoided a definitive ruling on whether citizens have a Constitution-protected right to an education.

The Detroit case has drawn nationwide attention from scholars, activists and economists who see the potential of a case that could expand the universe of rights.

Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Detroit case, argued before the judges in an October, argued that conditions in Detroit schools were the “most egregious” in the nation: Some classes had just five books for 28 students, chairs for 37 in classes of over 50, and not enough teachers, forcing students to watch movies or educate themselves.

Test scores for Detroit Public Schools Community District students are well below the state average. In the 2018-19 school year, 12 percent of Detroit third-grade students were proficient or better in English language arts, which includes reading; statewide, 45 percent were proficient or better.

In Thursday’s 2-1 ruling, the majority, made up of Judges Eric Clay, a Clinton appointee to the court, and Jane Stranch, an Obama appointee, wrote:

“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.”

In dissent, Appeals Court Judge Eric Murphy, an appointee of President Donald Trump, expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs, but said the courts were not the right place to reform schools. “If I sat in the state legislature or on the local school board, I would work diligently to investigate and remedy the serious problems that the plaintiffs assert,” Murphy wrote. “But I do not serve in those roles. And 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.”

Rosenbaum, the plaintiffs attorney, said the ruling was “an historic victory for the community of Detroit. Every Michigander who loves children should cheer this decision.”

“I am overjoyed with the Court’s decision recognizing that the Constitution guarantees a right to a basic minimum education,” Nessel said. “This recognition is the only way to guarantee that students who are required to attend school will actually have a teacher, adequate educational materials, and a physical environment that does not subject them to filth, unsafe drinking water, and physical danger.  Education is a gateway to exercising other fundamental rights such as free speech and the right to citizenship, it is essential in order to function in today’s complex society, and it is a necessary vehicle to empower individuals to rise above circumstances that have been foisted on them through no fault of their own.  Every child is entitled to the opportunity to participate fully in American life.”

Jamarria Hall, now 20, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he still carries the educational scars of a low-quality education in Detroit schools. He is now a student at a community college in Tallahassee, Florida.

“I still have to work hard with tutors every day because of so much time I missed out on going to Detroit Public Schools,” Hall said.

“It’s not just important for [the plaintiffs, who have now mostly graduated],” Hall said. “It’s important for the next generation. It’s important for students in school to think they can be the next president of the United States or go out and step on the moon someday.

Hall said the lawsuit is meant to assure that Detroit students “have that opportunity to be able to learn on the same stage as everyone around the United States, no matter what zip code we were born in to.”

Rosenbaum said he hopes to meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Nessel to discuss ways to settle the case by agreeing to invest in Detroit schools.

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Thu, 04/23/2020 - 8:03pm

Interesting concept, but what language? If someone wishes to read in French I'd assume that's a right? And why is this limited to reading and language? Why not mathematics? Sciences? I'm looking forward to suing my high school for my deficiency in quantum physics or even Spanish! Being denied your rights is a serious charge, can we imprison those that deny others their human rights? This might be fun! I can't wait to see where this new set of rights takes us.

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 7:47am

How exactly will courts enforce this new right? How will courts apportion blame for a failure to achieve literacy? Will K through 6th Grade administrators and teachers of each deficient student be held responsible post facto? Will the student be assigned any blame for inadequate effort?

The most straightforward response to the ruling is a court approved literacy test of every student at the conclusion of the 6th Grade, followed by diversion to a literacy program until they can pass the Court approved literacy test. If the 6CCoA's ruling is premised upon facts, the very school districts targeted for help in the suit will be further burdened by age diffusion in later grades.

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 9:39am

That's an interesting approach.

Your proposal is almost exactly like the "Read by Third Grade" law, no once again suspended from enforcement due to the shut down of schools across the state and much of the world. I'm concerned that if a student isn't literate by 6th grade, they are even further behind expectations and getting caught up will require even more effort from the student and perhaps their family.

DPSCD has done everything in their power to avoid enforcing "Read by Third Grade". From an outsider's perspective, the press reports make it seem the school district puts more energy into complaining about and avoiding the law than they do into improving reading instruction across the district.

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 8:28am

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to learn. Whether or not one does learn should not be dictated by the courts. Matt’s comment hits the nail right on the head. Only a few have the ability to be a Dr. Ben Carson, or a Bill Gates, or a Matthew Stafford. And ability should not be a subject to be legislated or judicialized.

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 9:54am

The failures of Detroit's Public School system belong, not to the state of Michigan, the Emergency (Financial) Managers, or the taxpayers of Michigan. The failures are not even primarily the responsibility of the adults working in and leading Detroit's school system. The failure to learn to read belongs primarily to the students and their families who exerted or required almost no effort or engagement from the students themselves. Even the most skilled and motivated teacher can't teach a student who isn't there and doesn't care to try to learn.

Secondarily, the failures of DPS and the current DPSCD belongs to school district officials, both the elected school boards and district executive staff who chose curricula, bought supplies, managed the custodial and building repair staff, made unrealistic school budgets, and trained and selected principals who committed or tolerated fraud. It is they who are to blame for the organization-wide tolerance of employee and student failure that led to the eventual appointment of Emergency Financial Managers. When DPS Central Office sinecures were threatened by the first EFM, who was appointed by Jennifer Granholm, these people sued to prevent the EFMs (and later EMs) from changing anything about the curriculum, teacher qualifications, school closure plans, and other "educational" rather than financial issues. They kept too many schools open, in spite of too few students to attend them and therefore insufficient funding, for over 40 years. That's where the school district's huge deficit came from, which the taxpayers of Michigan re-financed and created the DPSCD in 2016.

But even after the complete reorganization of DPS/DPCSD in 2016, the attitude of "we need to keep all our schools open, no matter how poorly they serve the students enrolled there" continued. After 4 years of new leadership, test scores have begun to creep upward, slowly and unevenly, but by enough to measure. But instead of embracing the "Read by Third Grade" law as a helpful re-set of parent and community expectations, DPSCD has fought tooth and nail against having to enforce it, and against retraining all elementary school teachers to teach reading using research-validated techniques or requiring them to use those techniques in every K-5 classroom.

This lawsuit will not help Detroit's (or any city's) students learn to read. More money spent by schools will not help students learn to read if the students and their families don't care. Teaching prospective and currently active elementary school teachers scientifically-validated techniques to teach reading will help, and can help a lot, but only if the students and parents also do their parts.

Barry Visel
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 10:39am

Bridge missed a great opportunity to educate their readers about our Constitution as it relates to this case. Specifically, what section (s) of our Constitution were referenced by the plaintiffs and the court to make this decision? The only "fundamental" rights I'm aware of are stated in the Declaration of Independence..."life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Our "rights" in the Constitution are spelled out either in the original text, or by amendment. I'm not seeing literacy as a right.

Joseph Kehrer-S...
Sun, 04/26/2020 - 11:42am

Literacy is considered an implied right. Just as much of our current belief of the 2nd Ammendment comes from an understanding of rights implied, but not always clearly stated in the law. If you cannot read, your ability to understand your other rights and to adequately participate in voting is infringed upon. Implied rights also include such really important things as the right to vote and the right to privacy.

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 11:05am

Of course it is up to the students to come to school and put forth effort to learn. I have no sympathy for them. However, there is no, absolutely no justification to have schools without enough books, chairs, lab equipment, and qualified teachers for all students. There is plenty of blame to go around. Poverty and inequality in our country cause and result in poverty and inequality in education and vice versa. Education is the only hope for a more equitable society. Stop the excuses.

Bob Sornson
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 1:42pm

Literacy is a requirement for working effectively in the age of information, ideas and innovation. But as long as we use a one-size-fits-all curriculum based on grade level content standards, vulnerable students will be crushed.
In Detroit, with less than 10% proficiency at grade level, we put kids into a curriculum that is based on grade level content and which assumes students already have the skills and knowledge of the previous grades. And they don't. So they get frustrated and eventually disengage from trying to learn.
Only a new system designed to personalize learning and help each child develop competency one step at a time before moving to higher level skills will give these kids a chance to be truly literate. Teach kids at their level, for as long as needed to develop deep understanding, in a safe and respectful classroom, with a teacher they respect and love.