Students in Detroit Are Suing the State Because They Weren’t Taught to Read

via theatlantic:

What to do when a school is infested with vermin, when textbooks are outdated, when students can’t even read? Perhaps the answer is sue the government.

That’s what seven students in Detroit have done. Their class-action suit filed against the state of Michigan asserts that education is a basic right, and that they have been denied it.

Usually, such education-equity cases wend their way through state courts, as all 50 state constitutions mandate public-education systems, while the country’s guiding document doesn’t even include the word education. But this case, Gary B. v. Snyder, was filed in federal court, and thus seeks to invoke the Constitution. And as of this week, it’s headed to the federal appeals court in Cincinnati.

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The lawyers filing the suit—from the pro bono Los Angeles firm Public Counsel—contend that the students (who attend five of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools) are receiving an education so inferior and underfunded that it’s as if they’re not attending school at all. The 100-page-plus complaint alleges that the state of Michigan (which has overseen Detroit’s public schools for nearly two decades) is depriving these children—97 percent of whom are students of color—of their constitutional rights to liberty and nondiscrimination by denying them access to basic literacy. Almost all the students at these schools perform well below grade level in reading and writing, and, the suit argues, those skills are necessary to function properly in society. It’s the first case to argue that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to become literate (and thus to be educated) because other rights in the Constitution necessarily require the ability to read.

The case is a long shot. Late last week, the district-court judge in Detroit, Stephen J. Murphy, dismissed it. (The plaintiffs are appealing that dismissal.) Murphy essentially stated that he needed guidance from the Supreme Court if he were to weigh in on whether the students’ abysmal proficiency levels and learning conditions amount to a violation of the Constitution. He also concluded that the suit makes too many hard-to-prove causal claims. Even though Michigan subjects the predominantly black Detroit students to conditions to which it doesn’t subject, say, the predominantly white students of nearby Grosse Pointe, Murphy wrote, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that the state is treating the former group differently because of their race and thus violating the equal-protection clause. Another obstacle: The federal judiciary has grown particularly restrained on educational-rights issues in recent decades, in part because of the backlash from parents and othersopposed to integration efforts that followed the wave of school-desegregation rulings in the 1970s and ’80s.

The fact that a suit like Gary B. v. Snyder was even filed says a lot about the state of education in the United States today. The case is indicative of a new chapter in American education in which advocates, frustrated with persistent achievement gaps and glaring disparities in school quality despite efforts to combat those problems, are resorting to unconventional means to bring about change. Similar to the recent wave of teachers’ strikes , the lawyers behind Gary B. v. Snyder seek to interrupt what the plaintiffs and their supporters argue is a status quo of educational unfairness not only in Detroit, but also across the country.

The lawyers behind Gary B. v. Snyder sought recourse through the federal system, explained Kristi Bowman, an education-law scholar at Michigan State University who cowrote an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, because Michigan’s courts have generally refused to take on education-rights cases. That’s largely because the language on education in its constitution is even more vague and limited than that in the constitutions of many other states, some of whose courts have been very active in adjudicating suits about how schools are funded. States including Arkansas and Delaware, for example, constitutionally require the provision of “general” or “efficient” education, while states such as Colorado and Idaho stipulate that education be “thorough” or “uniform.” A few states, like Virginia, mention quality. And one state—Montana—guarantees “equality of educational opportunity” for all its residents. It also requires in its statutes that all schools provide a sound foundation for literacy in kids’ early years.

In Michigan, though, children’s right to education is simply about access—schools essentially only need to be in operation for that right to be fulfilled—rather than about “education of a particular level or quality,” said Bowman, who also serves as MSU’s vice dean for academic affairs. As Matthew Patrick Shaw, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, put it, Michigan’s constitution contains “no aspiration to high quality, no aspiration to efficiency.”

So, the plaintiffs in Gary B. v. Snyder decided to argue, as Bowman put it, that “what’s happening [in the Detroit schools] fell so far below any unacceptable level of education that it does violate the federal Constitution,” in the sense that, “If someone is functionally illiterate—unable to read at grade level—then how we can expect them to meaningfully engage in the rest of their explicit constitutional rights?” She went on, “How can we expect them to meaningfully participate in our government and exercise the right to vote and the right to free speech if their ability to obtain information and evaluate that information is so limited because the public schools that they attended did not even give them an opportunity to become literate?”


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