Do students have a constitutional right to a good education? Federal court case could decide. | Michigan Radio
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Do students have a constitutional right to a good education? Federal court case could decide.

Dec 2, 2019

The word “education” doesn’t appear in the United States Constitution, but should students be guaranteed a basic level of literacy in order to fully participate in American democracy? 

That question is at the heart of a Detroit lawsuit that's just been argued before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The "Right to Read" suit was filed in 2016 on behalf of some students in Detroit public and charter schools and argues that substandard classroom conditions denied them access to a basic education. 

Detroit-based reporter Erin Einhorn is with NBC News Digital. She said that “Right to Read” makes the case that the quality of education in the city is so insufficient that children who graduate from Detroit schools are unable to fully engage with rights guaranteed by the Constitution, including the right to vote and to serve on a jury.

The case was first filed against the state of Michigan during the administration of former Governor Rick Snyder, who argued that although Detroit schools were indeed “in a difficult situation,” those circumstances did not actually violate the Constitution.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's administration is now arguing a similar point, adding that “things have changed in Detroit" since 2016, particularly considering that the city is no longer under state control. It also points out that the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which was established under Snyder, has a new superintendent who has made notable, but "fairly incremental," improvements.

Derek Black is a law professor at the University of South Carolina, where his research focuses on constitutional law and education. Kristine Bowman, a professor of law and education at Michigan State University, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Detroit students.

Bowman explained that that brief “focused on the extent to which Michigan as a state had been involved in the Detroit public schools” and how the state itself could be held responsible for education outcomes at the district level.

Plaintiffs in the “Right to Read” case say that some Detroit schools are “schools in name only,” Bowman said. They point to the fact that many school buildings are “falling apart,” experiencing a shortage of certified teachers, and often lacking up-to-date teaching materials. Given those circumstances, she argued it’s no surprise that “literacy rates are in the single digits” at a number of schools in the district. 

Black said that history dating back to the nation’s founding and the Civil War “clearly dispels” the notion that education isn’t a federal concern. He pointed out that “literacy has always been the gateway to participation in our democracy” and that citizens must understand political debates in order to be informed voters.

“If children — the overwhelming majority of them — are not getting an education that provides fundamental, basic reading, they might as well not be citizens in the United States of America,” Black said. “That’s a sad thing to say, but that is the functional position that the state of Michigan puts them in.”

Bowman believes that litigation is a “last resort” when it comes to pushing for education reform. She said that cases like “Right to Read” arise because the state of Michigan and its political processes have “failed children,” making court battles students’ only remaining option.

“If things really are changing here in the state and if we are able to reform the system of laws that govern schools and if we’re able to think about how we create a system of laws that is more fair and equitable and that does not hit districts like Detroit quite so hard, then the children of Michigan are better served and don’t have as much of a need for litigation,” Bowman said.

If the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the claims presented by the plaintiffs in “Right to Read,” the case will go back to the district court. After that, Bowman said a “long factfinding process” and trial would follow. If the Sixth Circuit dismisses the case, the plaintiffs would have the option to appeal to the Supreme Court.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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