Access to Literacy Is a Fundamental Right, Sixth Circuit Finds

The Cincinnati-based appeals court held that literacy is essential to the exercise of other constitutional rights, like voting.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A Sixth Circuit panel ruled Thursday that a “basic minimum education” is a constitutional right and breathed new life into claims brought by a class of Detroit-area students who say they were denied fundamental access to literacy as a result of the city’s crumbling public school system.

The class sued former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the state Board of Education, and several other state officials in 2016, claiming the atrocious conditions in several of Detroit’s worst-performing schools violated their due process and equal protection rights.

State agencies were named as defendants in the suit as the result of repeated interventions in Detroit’s public schools, both financially and in day-to-day operations, over the past two decades.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that while state officials were proper parties to the suit, access to literacy is not a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and dismissed the case.

The current and former students appealed, and the case was argued before a Sixth Circuit panel in October 2019.

Conditions at the five schools attended by the students who filed the complaint were discussed in last year’s oral arguments and are also detailed in Thursday’s opinion.

According to the students, a reliance on Teach for America instructors has left the Detroit schools bereft of qualified instructors and led to a high turnover rate, while also leaving some students to fend for themselves.

“In perhaps the most notable case, ‘an eighth grade student was put in charge of teaching seventh and eighth grade math classes for a month because no math teacher was available,’” U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the 2-1 majority.

Students are also forced to endure harsh conditions at their learning facilities – none of which met minimal health and safety standards in 2016 – including 90-plus degree temperatures in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter, according to court records.

Textbooks at the schools are also woefully inadequate, according the students, who claim they are either damaged, outdated, or inappropriate for their grade level, while some schools also lack pens, pencils and paper.

At oral arguments, an attorney for the state denied that it was ultimately in control of Detroit’s public schools during the time period spelled out in the complaint. The attorney said local control has been reinstated, and that following the state’s $750 million funding of a “debt-free school district,” there are no continuing constitutional violations and the case has become moot.

But Clay ruled that because the Michigan Board of Education maintains control over all public education in the state, its current lack of day-to-day control over the district in question does not exclude it from liability.

When faced with the students’ due process claim regarding access to literacy, the Sixth Circuit majority determined it is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Clay addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s history on the right to education, which includes several decisions classifying the right as highly significant but not fundamentally guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

The importance of education as a “prerequisite to the exercise of political power,” according to Clay, requires that access to literacy be guaranteed.

He expounded on the nation’s history of racism and the use of education to further malign marginalized groups, and wrote that literacy is “essential to the exercise of other fundamental rights.”

“The Supreme Court’s desegregation cases,” Clay said, “make clear that state-provided public education is important not just to provide a shot at achievement in the face of inequalities of wealth and power, but specifically as a means of addressing past racial discrimination that restricted educational opportunities, and of course to maintain as best we can whatever equal opportunity has already been achieved.”

“Effectively every interaction between a citizen and her government depends on literacy. Voting, taxes, the legal system, jury duty – all of these are predicated on the ability to read and comprehend written thoughts,” the judge continued.

Clay was quick to point out that the right to access to literacy defined in his opinion was narrow, and did not guarantee any certain quality of education. Rather, it “amounts to an education sufficient to provide access to a foundational level of literacy – the degree of comprehension needed for participation in our democracy.”

However, Clay agreed with the lower court that the students did not present an adequate equal protection claim.

The students failed to point to a policy implemented by the state officials that resulted in substantial differences between school districts in the state and deprived them of a basic minimum education, according to the ruling.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Stranch, a Barack Obama appointee, joined Clay in the majority.  

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Murphy, a Donald Trump appointee, dissented and said federal judges do not have “the power to oversee Detroit’s schools in the name of the United States Constitution.”

Murphy railed against the establishment of a new constitutional right, writing that “this positive right to a minimum education will jumble our separation of powers.”

“It will immerse federal courts in a host of education disputes far outside our constitutionally assigned role to interpret legal texts,” he wrote.

Marcie Craig Post, executive director of the International Literacy Association, said in a statement that the ruling “provides literacy advocates with an important victory.”

“The International Literacy Association, which joined other education associations on the amicus curaebrief, applauds the circuit court’s ruling and will continue to advocate for the recognition of access to effective literacy instruction as a federally protected civil right,” Post said.

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