In mid-September, a lawsuit was filed against the State of Michigan on behalf of Detroit schoolchildren. The case seeks to establish literacy as a constitutional right, and Michigan is not interested, thanks.
The Detroit Free Press reports that the suit was filed by the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, which is the largest public interest firm in the U.S. It claims that the State of Michigan’s systemic issues in education and their mismanagement of school funding has left low-income students of color without the tools needed to develop literacy, which denies them access to constitutional rights like voting, jury duty or military service. Michigan has responded by asking a federal judge to dismiss the case:
“The United States Supreme Court and Michigan courts recognize the importance of literacy,” state lawyers wrote in a response last week to a suit filed on behalf of Detroit school children. “But as important as literacy may be, the United States Supreme Court has unambiguously rejected the claim that public education is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”
In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a different lawsuit against the state on behalf of the students in Highland Park and their “right-to-read,” but that suit cited the state constitution. Public Counsel is addressing the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act in their prosecution. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against the ACLU in 2014, saying that the state is obligated to finance schools, but must leave how education is directed to individual districts.
Michigan has appointed emergency managers to run the Detroit Public Schools. State lawyers argue that while those emergency managers could supplant local district authority, the “state” never ran the schools themselves. State lawyers also say that the prosecution is ignoring “many other factors that contribute to illiteracy, such as poverty, parental involvement (or lack thereof), medical problems, intellectual limitations, domestic violence, trauma, and other numerous influences.”
Public Counsel’s Kathryn Eidmann says that this response does not in any way address the issues in public schools that have led to emergency managers:
“The response completely fails to engage with the 136-page complaint’s specific and detailed allegations documenting the extreme and indefensible conditions that deny children access to literacy in Detroit schools: classrooms without books or teachers, sweltering and freezing temperatures, vermin infestations, and buildings that are literally falling apart,” Eidmann said. “Each day that the state chooses to fight this lawsuit is another day of education lost that may never be recovered. Would the state try to wash its hands of this matter if the students suffering were not children of color from low-income families?”