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

The plaintiffs in the case, a group of former or current students, argued that Michigan failed to provide adequate schools and conditions where the students could learn to read. (Shutterstock image)

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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Wed, 10/23/2019 - 5:16pm

Yes, then we can jail, fine or flog the teachers, parents, educators and taxpayers for denying these kids their rights. Definitely one of the more loopy ideas the left has come up with.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 6:09pm

Michigan Taxpayers have been beyond generous with providing funding to DPS/DPSCD at the expense of other school districts throughout Michigan.

And, oh yeah, there was also that Michigan Taxpayer bailout which always gets "overlooked".

Why not focus on how a culture has been allowed to grow and flourish within Detroit de-emphasizing education?

You can spend all the money you want, but when people DON'T want to learn, why should anyone expect anything different?

John Q. Public
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 7:50pm

If literacy is a constitutional right, it is only because one or more judges decide--literally--sua sponte that it is. It will be like the right to privacy. Only the most tortured legal reasoning can result in finding something that is not there.

Thu, 10/24/2019 - 12:40am

It is interesting that there is no description of the learning process for reading, that there is no mention of the role/responsibilities of the student in whether they learn to read or not, there is no mention how many kids are reading the books in a classroom. We have heard for the longest time the impact on a child's learning when a parent regularly reads to them, but there is no mention of that in the lawsuits justification.
As best I can tell this is simply another grab for other people's money with no expectation that it will change any of the reading skills.

David Murray
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 9:31am

If there is no constitutional right to literacy, the State, then, in my opinion, cannot retain a third grade student for failing to read at "grade level." Grade level becomes a non-entity. The State cannot enforce an unconstitutional action. It would also suggest to me the State cannot dictate educational standards. To do so would be in violation of an individual's right to be illiterate.

Fri, 10/25/2019 - 11:17am

You're on to something here! We can't give a pportunity to learn some basics to all kids and just leave it at that? Maybe stop the joke that it's the Governor's fault your kid can't read?

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/29/2019 - 1:12am

So what you are saying is that it isn't Governor Whitmers fault, or the teachers fault it is YOUR fault or the childs PARENTS FAULT! FINALLY!

Then why beat up on teachers Matt? Why beat up on Governor Whitmer when she hasn't been if office for only 10 months? Why not beat up on Bull Schutte? He was the one that said he was going to improve reading scores if elected. How did he plan on doing that? Expanding libraries. Are MI republicans going to fulfill that? LOL!


Tax cuts 4 the USA, means the rest have to live with austeritay!

Guess who is going to get hit first? Yep. Up north! Why? Less demand means less supply.

Get ready conservatives. The rooster is about to roost.

Sun, 10/27/2019 - 5:32pm

Are you saying that unless something is mentioned in the constitution then no rules/regulation/protocols can be developed and implemented by government?
I believe a more credible way to describe it is that the Constitution doesn't mandate nor can guarantee results. It is especially true for those activities that require participation/actions by the individuals to achieve any part of the results. A person won't learn unless they do a minimum amount of work at learning [which is unique to each person].
I question if the State can be held to a quality of performance even if that performance were described in specific details.

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/29/2019 - 2:32am

Read the comments between me and Duane on "tiny houses".

Duane says he is a scientist who also thinks that gravity is magic!

Why should anyone take his opinion seriously?

He thinks there are no truths. (Rudy Guiliani) there are "alternative facts" (Kellyanne CONway) and everything is perception! ("What you are seeing, and what you are not what is happening". President Donald J Trump)

What more needs to be said? OH! He believes in God and Jesus but believes the Bible is a construct that man made to coerce others into following rules that man made. Read and COMPREHEND his words. He tells you what he means. Sometimes, if you can coerce him into it.

The question that needs to be asked is; Who pays him for his posts?

Mine are free and they come from me.

And I say, in the Wealthiest Nation the World has ever known, Tax cuts for the wealthiest in the USA means austerity for you and me!

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 1:48pm

You were the one to call me a 'scientist', I said I had worked with 'scientists' [by education and by nature of their work], and I stay with the idea if you can't explain why something, such as gravity, exists then what else is there to call it but magic. My opinions are simply a different perspective shared in a conversation.
Aside from the ten command and Christ's quotes, it seems that the rest is people capture events and understandings were written of the context of the times and the scribes experiences. I don't doubt there are many who will disagree with my perspective.
I have not received any money for any writing on Bridge. I see the value of Bridge is to hear the diversity of perspectives and when possible have a conversation.
Where you seem to want more and more of other people's money for the government to spend, I want responsible spending and accountability.

middle of the mit
Sat, 11/02/2019 - 5:31am

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 11:53pm

. Even in science what is considered a truth one day may be proven wrong the next, our history of scientific ‘truths’ have evolved through time and I expect they will continue to evolve.]]

This is why I believed you were claiming to be a scientist. Why did I believe that? Because I took you at your word. You were talking about science, and I was trying to be respectful. Now we all know that you are not a scientist and you don't know why gravity is. I should've and did know as soon as you told me that gravity was magic.

Even though it is explainable to many scientists. Are you hanging around with anti-vaxers ?

I don't want others people money, I just want society to function as a whole. Have you read the Bible? Jesus wasn't for the wealthy. Far from it!

Maybe you should read Matthew 25:32 until you find out the difference between a goat and a sheep nation.

Figure out if you to be a goat or a sheep. I am going to be a sheep.

Sun, 11/03/2019 - 3:43pm

You give the label of ‘scientists’ and you take it away seemingly because what I have said about gravity. Let me offer this from the Univ of Illinois Urbana web page Q&A for the question; Why is there gravity? “…Scientists can explain lots of facts and effects of gravity and know why the earth attracts an apple and why and how it falls, but we do not know why gravity exists...”
NASA; Why is there gravity? “We don’t really know. We can define what it is as a field of influence, because we know how it operates in the universe…if we are honest, we do not know what gravity “is” in any fundamental way – we only know how it behaves. “
If these two references don’t have enough scientific credibility for you, tell me what criteria a source would have to have for you to trust their answers?
I first began referring to gravity as magic talking to some people that had high expectation of the omnificence science and scientists. I call ‘gravity’ magic because it has an unexplained influence on our world, ourselves, everything around us. How would you describe a force that can’t explain?
I have become more curious how you define a scientist. I start with the nature of how they apply science in their work, how they learned science, etc.
I have always worked for other people’s money, whether in my first job of delivering papers to each job since then.
I had thought the Lord decides who the shepherd of sheep and of goats would be. But it seems you have decided that for him. When I have read the Bible, to me it seems about the individual and their choices, wealth doesn’t seem to be a determining factor. Even in Mathew 25 it talks ‘who has will be given more’, it seems to be what one does with what one has.
What is disappointing is that there hasn’t been any conversation of how the student learning process could be changed, how Michigan education could be changed, how as a community we could be elevating the [perceived] value of learning, how we could personalize the value of learning.

Dona Deman
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 5:05pm

Only students who were in a specific Michigan school system for all of grades 1 through 5 should be used as examples.

Dona Deman
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 5:14pm

Only students who attended a specific Michigan school system from all of grades 1 through 5 should be used as examples.

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 10/26/2019 - 11:05am

So this is ok? How can students learn in these conditions? Of course the parents and students are responsible. There is plenty of blame to go around. But what good does blame do?
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.

Sun, 10/27/2019 - 4:13pm

You are asking the wrong questions.
Do you want to solve these problems or is it enough for you to point out these disappointments?
Are you interested in addressing the problems you have identified or is it an all or nothing solving the whole of the problems with Michigan education? Which is better [for you] helping those within reach or be the hero solving these problems for all?
Once we understand if you are committed or only involved that we can work on the problems.