Detroit Students Fight to Revive Literacy-Rights Case

CINCINNATI (CN) – A class of current and former students of the Detroit public school system urged a Sixth Circuit panel Thursday to reinstate their civil rights case against the state of Michigan for its alleged failure to provide “even a minimally adequate education.”

The students sued former Governor Rick Snyder and other state officials in September 2016, claiming the state’s emergency management of the Detroit school system was failing. Black students were disproportionately affected, according to the complaint, because of overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and unsafe school buildings.

The numerous failings of the school system and the state actors who run it, the students claimed, led to a precipitous drop in literacy rates and violated their constitutional rights.

The students say they were “denied access to literacy on account of their races” and “have not received even a minimally adequate education,” according to court records.

Snyder and the other officials argued they were improperly named in the suit and merely exercised a “supervisory role” in the city’s educational system, but U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III disagreed last year.

Murphy, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that because the emergency managers appointed by Snyder reported directly to the governor’s office, the state exercised direct control over the school system and could be sued by the students.

The judge also found the students had suffered a concrete and particularized injury to grant them standing under federal law, and that their injuries could be traced to the state officials and emergency managers who failed to rectify the poor conditions in Detroit’s public schools.

However, Murphy underscored the point that access to literacy is not a fundamental right, which “requires finding that neither liberty nor justice would exist absent state-provided literacy access.”

He called the outcomes of Detroit’s educational system “devastating,” but ultimately concluded the due process clause does not “demand that a state affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy.”

Thursday’s arguments before the Sixth Circuit took place in a Cincinnati courtroom packed with spectators, the majority of whom traveled from Detroit and are intimately involved with the case and the public school system at large.

Attorney Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin argued on behalf of the students, and told the panel “the Supreme Court has consistently left open the question of whether this right exists.”

He outlined the issues faced by students in Detroit, including the lack of textbooks, qualified teachers, and adequate buildings, and called the city’s educational facilities “schools by name only.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Murphy, who was appointed by President Donald Trump earlier this year, interrupted the attorney and suggested the majority of Supreme Court cases regarding education dealt with the fundamental right of education, not access to literacy.

Phillips responded that state constitutions have consistently emphasized the importance of education and literacy.

“If the history is there,” the attorney said, “then the history speaks for itself.”

Phillips added that the state “has not identified the remotest justification … for this sham arrangement” and has told innocent students “you are now stigmatized for all time.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, a Bill Clinton appointee, questioned Phillips about the injunctive relief sought by his clients, and also wondered if the local school board should have been named as a defendant in the case.

“You want a decent school system funded and set up,” Clay said, and then asked where the money would come from and how it would be distributed if the court ruled in the students’ favor.

“You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Phillips answered, while admitting the question of potential relief is a “daunting task.”

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Raymond Howd argued on behalf of the state, denying that it was ultimately in control of Detroit’s public schools during the time period spelled out in the complaint.

Clay and U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Stranch, a Barack Obama appointee, immediately contested the point.

“There hasn’t been shyness about the state coming in and taking control,” Clay said.

Stranch followed by pointing out there is a 20-year history of the state government moving “in and out” of control of Detroit’s public schools.

Howd 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.

Stranch disagreed, and spoke at length about the case and Detroit’s failing schools in general.

“What is at issue is the failure to provide access,” she said. “You’ve not made it available. [The students] can’t be within the American system … if they can’t read or write at a minimum level.”

No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.

In addition to the near-capacity courtroom, there was also a line of protesters outside the courthouse during and after the arguments.

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