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Is literacy a constitutional right? A Detroit legal case could decide

The conditions inside some Detroit public schools were horrific: 

  • Five textbooks for 28 students in one class. 
  • Thirty-seven chairs for 52 students in another. 
  • Schools where a third of the teachers were not state-certified to teach.

U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III was appalled. In 2018, he called the allegations “nothing short of devastating. When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury –  and so does society.”

But Murphy also ruled against the same students when he rejected claims that they had a right under the U.S. Constitution of access to literacy.

Now, Murphy’s ruling is under appeal in a case that could upend decades of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on whether education is a fundamental right. In a highly watched case that has national implications, Murphy’s 2018 ruling will be contested in a U.S. Appeals Court in Cincinnati on Thursday, Oct. 24.

It’s a case that has attracted the attention of scholars, economists and civil rights activists from across the nation.

What’s at stake

The plaintiffs, a group of former or current students, argued that Michigan, through its system of governance, failed to provide adequate schools and conditions where the students could learn to read. The suit seeks comprehensive –  and likely expensive – reforms that would ensure the students became literate.

Murphy dismissed the case before it could get to a trial. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would send the case back to Murphy’s court. 

Why it matters

U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s and 1980s addressed whether education was a fundamental right, and justices had narrowly ruled it was not. Murphy leaned heavily on those cases in his ruling. But he also acknowledged that the question was not completely settled. Should plaintiffs win –  and that decision be upheld by the Supreme Court – it would have sweeping impact.

This sounds familiar

The American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the current lawsuit, filed a civil lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of Highland Park students claiming that Michigan and the Highland Park schools had failed in its obligation to provide students an adequate education. A state appeals court rejected the case.

How is this case different?

The Detroit case arrives at the appellate court after the landmark Supreme Court 2015 decision allowing same-sex marriages. In that case, a 5-4 decision ruled that same-sex couples had a fundamental right to marry, a right not mentioned in the Constitution. 

Using some of the same reasoning, attorneys in the Detroit case argued that access to literacy is a right as well.

Plaintiffs argue

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that, in order to fully participate in public life, students must be able to read and that by creating “schools in name only” that were "functionally delivering no education at all,” Michigan was denying them that right. To not create conditions that would enhance literacy, the state was stigmatizing the students, they argued. They also contended that students in Detroit are unfairly enrolled in schools of far less quality than those of their peers in other districts across the state.

The defense says

State attorneys argue access to literacy is not a fundamental right, agreeing with Murphy. But they also argued that the state no longer is in control of the Detroit schools, as it was when the case was filed an emergency manager headed the district. 

Who is hearing the case

A three-judge panel will hear arguments for an hour. The judges were appointed by Presidents Clinton, Obama and Trump.

Allies as opponents

The case has pitted Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, against the new Attorney General, Dana Nessel. Both are Democrats.

Though Nessel’s office will defend the state, she personally has sided with the plaintiffs. And Whitmer, who as a candidate said she objected to Murphy’s ruling, has replaced former Gov. Rick Snyder as a defendant.

Other details

Two busloads of students and activists are headed to the courthouse in Ohio and Detroit Community Schools Superintendent Nikoli Vitti is also expected to attend.

So will Bridge. Expect full coverage from Cincinnati online Thursday afternoon.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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