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

"If replicated, this ruling could raise the level of education for disadvantaged students across the nation," one scholar said.
Helen Moore of Detroit leads a group of protesters at the Potter Stewart U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cincinnati
Helen Moore of Detroit leads a group of protesters outside the federal courthouse in Cincinnati on Oct. 24, 2019.Leigh Taylor / The Detroit News

American children have a fundamental right to at least a basic education, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

In a ruling legal scholars said could affect disadvantaged children across the country, Sixth Circuit Court Judge Eric Clay wrote in an opinion siding with a group of Detroit students in their suit against the state of Michigan that education “is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government.”

“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,” he wrote.

The Detroit students filed suit in 2016, documenting alarming conditions in rodent-infested, crumbling schools that lacked certified teachers and up-to-date textbooks. The students argued that the state was responsible for those conditions since it controlled Detroit’s main school district for much of the two decades leading up the suit. They also claimed the state implemented policies that worsened the situation by creating competition between the city’s main school district and scores of charter schools.

The suit was filed on behalf of students who attended both district and charter schools, arguing that the state had deprived too many of these children of the right to become literate, productive adults.

A trial court judge agreed the conditions the students documented were “deplorable” but threw out their case because he said the Constitution does not guarantee the right to an education.

Two of the three Sixth Circuit judges who heard the case on appeal last fall found that it does.

“Every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning that access to literacy is necessary to access our political process,” Clay wrote in his majority opinion with Judge Jane Stranch, adding that “the unique role of public education as a source of opportunity separate from the means of a child's parents creates a heightened social burden to provide at least a minimal education. Thus, the exclusion of a child from a meaningful education by no fault of her own should be viewed as especially suspect.”

The third judge on the panel, Eric Murphy, wrote in his dissent that while providing basic education is a noble policy goal, it’s not guaranteed by the Constitution.

“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,” he 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.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision, but her office is still reviewing the case, said spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis.

Lewis noted that while some members of the state board of education challenged the lower court decision that students did not have a right to read, “the governor did not challenge that ruling on the merits.”

“We’ve also regularly reinforced that the governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read,” Lewis said.

Mark Rosenbaum, whose Public Counsel law firm brought the case with the Sidley Austin law firm, said he hopes the governor will work with Detroit educators and advocates to settle the suit.

“We should focus on the classroom, not the courtroom at this point,” he said. “My hope is that all parties can sit down and work out a reasonable resolution of the case, even understanding that we’re also in the middle of a pandemic.”

Jamarria Hall, who joined the lawsuit after he says the Detroit high school he attended failed to prepare him for college, celebrated what the decision could mean for Detroit children like his niece and nephew.

“They have a chance,” he said. “They can go to school and feel like they can be the next president of the United States. They can be the next person on the moon.”

Hall knows the case is still not resolved, he said, “but at least we know that we were heard and that we still have a foot through the door.”

Jamarria Hall.Doug Coombe / NBC News

Rosenbaum said that while the case only applies to students in Detroit, it could have far-reaching ramifications for students elsewhere who believe their schools are not providing basic literacy.

“It sends a powerful statement across the country,” he said. “It’s a victory for all children who deserve a basic, minimal education.”

Advocates for education equity around the country have been following the Detroit case closely and were cheering the ruling on Thursday, said Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina whose research has focused on educational rights and constitutional law.

“Advocates and scholars have been theorizing the possibility of a decision like this for decades,” he said. “Too see it in print is overwhelming. If replicated, this ruling could raise the level of education for disadvantaged students across the nation.”