In a landmark decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that children have a constitutional right to literacy, dealing a remarkable victory to students.
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit brought by students of five Detroit schools, claiming that because of deteriorating buildings, teacher shortages and inadequate textbooks, the state of Michigan failed to provide them with the most fundamental of skills: the ability to read.
For decades, civil rights lawyers have tried to help students and families in underfunded schools by arguing that the U.S. Constitution guarantees children at least a basic education. Federal courts have consistently disagreed. Until now.
The ability to read and write is "essential" for a citizen to participate in American democracy, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday. One cannot effectively vote, answer a jury summons, pay taxes or even read a road sign if illiterate, wrote Judge Eric Clay, and so where "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."
"Like a daycare"
The 2016 complaint alleges that Michigan's then-Gov. Rick Snyder and the state's board of education denied Detroit students their fundamental right to literacy. It cites textbooks that were tattered, outdated and in such short supply that teachers could not send work home. The suit also describes school buildings that were in shocking disrepair: broken toilets and water fountains, leaking ceilings, shattered windows.
In warmer months, the complaint says, a lack of air-conditioning caused some students to faint; in winter, students regularly wore hats, coats and scarves to class. Students became accustomed to seeing cockroaches, mice or rats scurrying across the floor.
"You're sitting down in the classroom, and you see rodents in a corner. Or you can hear things crawling in the books," says Jamarria Hall, a plaintiff in the class-action suit, who graduated in 2017. "But the saddest thing of all was really the resources that they had, like, being in a class where there's 34 students, but there's only six textbooks."
Given these conditions, the five K-12 schools named in the complaint also struggled to retain teachers. Many classes were taught by paraprofessionals or inexperienced teachers placed through the Teach For America program. Often, Hall says, when teachers quit suddenly or didn't show up, students would simply be sent to the gym.
"For days on end — weeks on end — if the school didn't have a substitute or couldn't fill that gap, the gym was basically the go-to place. Or they would set students down in the classroom and really put on a movie, like Frozen... like a daycare," Hall remembers.
At one school, the complaint says, a math teacher quit soon after the school year began "due to frustration with large class sizes and lack of support. ... Eventually, the highest performing eighth grade student was asked to take over teaching both seventh and eighth grade math. This student taught both math classes for a month."
The complaint delivers a crushing assessment of these schools' failure to educate students: Proficiency rates "hover near zero in nearly all subject areas," it says.
"Illiteracy is the norm."
Previous legal efforts to argue that families in low-income, underfunded schools deserve better have run headlong into the U.S. Constitution, which makes no mention of the word "education," let alone a right to it.
One of the most famous cases, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, made it all the way to the Supreme Court before the justices, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that families in poorer districts have no federal right to the same levels of funding as wealthier districts. They essentially said: The system isn't fair, but the U.S. government has no obligation to make it so.
In fact, the first judge to hear the current, Detroit case came to much the same conclusion.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy dismissed the Michigan suit in 2018, writing that, yes, "literacy — and the opportunity to obtain it — is of incalculable importance," but not necessarily a fundamental right.
The students' lawyers disputed Murphy's reasoning and appealed his ruling, and, on Thursday, two of three judges took their side.
"We're not asking for a Cadillac"
In the past, many of the arguments used to pursue educational equity in the courts have been inherently comparative. Using the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, lawyers have focused on disparity — how one school or one district's resources compare to another's.
"This [case] is different," says Tacy Flint, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP and a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "It's not comparative. It's not a question of some people being treated worse than others. This fundamental right to a basic minimum education is a right that every child has."
Flint and her co-counsel focused more on a different pillar of the 14th Amendment, the Due Process Clause, saying the Constitution protects essential rights that "you can't imagine our constitutional democracy or our political life functioning without." And, Flint says, "access to literacy clearly fits that description."
Put simply: The plaintiffs' lawyers did not set out to level the playing field for all students. Instead, they attempted to use the appalling conditions of five Detroit schools to establish a floor.
"This case focuses squarely on literacy as the irreducible minimum," says Kristine Bowman, professor of law and education policy at Michigan State University.
And that minimum is pretty minimal.
"We're not asking for a Cadillac, or even a used, low-end Kia. We're asking for something more than the Flintstones' car," says co-counsel Evan Caminker, a former dean of the University of Michigan Law School.
In his dissent to Thursday's decision, Circuit Judge Eric Murphy argued that accepting literacy as a constitutional right would open a Pandora's box for states, and force federal courts to wrestle with questions beyond their purview: "May they compel states to raise their taxes to generate the needed [school] funds? Or order states to give parents vouchers so that they may choose different schools? How old may textbooks be before they become constitutionally outdated? What minimum amount of training must teachers receive? Which HVAC systems must public schools use?"
Murphy wrote that history, and legal precedent, are on his side: "The Supreme Court has refused to treat education as a fundamental right every time a party has asked it to do so."
After all, the judge reasoned, food, housing and medical care are also "critical for human flourishing and for the exercise of constitutional rights," but the Constitution "does not compel states to spend funds on these necessities of life." Why should education be any different?
A spokesperson for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says her office is reviewing the court's decision before it decides what to do next. Whitmer's office also said in a statement that "the governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read."
While the ruling is historic, it comes with several caveats. Basic literacy is a remarkably low standard to set for schools. As such, legal experts say, this ruling won't have an immediate impact on children in underfunded schools.
"We're not talking about the court having to recognize a broad-based, free-floating, generalized right to education," says Michelle Adams, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City. This will not "open the floodgates of litigation. We're talking about a situation where students are being warehoused and required to be in school and yet they literally cannot read."
The case is also relatively young. The court's decision could be reviewed by the full 6th Circuit, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, or returned to play out in District Court. Whitmer's office has not yet indicated how the state will respond.
"The fight is not done yet," says Jamarria Hall, who is now living in Tallahassee, Fla., and taking classes at a community college. "We were fighting just to get into the ring. Now we're in the ring. Now the fight really starts."