In a potential landmark ruling, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held this week that access to a basic minimum education “that can plausibly impart literacy” is a fundamental, Constitutionally protected right.
In a 2-1 ruling released on April 23, the court held that basic literacy is “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,” and central to “the basic exercise of other fundamental rights,” including political participation.
“The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter,” the court conceded in its written opinion. “But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance. Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history has led the American people universally to expect it. And education—at least in the minimum form discussed here—is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government.”
The Appeals court ruling reverses and remands a 2016 case in which lawyers claim that the State of Michigan failed to provide a suitable education to a plaintiff group of Detroit Public School students, after invoking the state’s Emergency Management Powers to take over control of the plaintiff’s schools. At trial, the plaintiffs argued that they were forced to sit in classrooms that were “functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy,” marked by “unqualified instructors,” and “a dearth of textbooks and other school supplies.” The result: a number of students with “zero or near-zero” proficiency levels on state-administered tests.
While the Appeals court decision cites and acknowledges a litany of Supreme Court cases that have addressed whether a fundamental right to a basic minimum education exists, the high court has yet to definitely answer the question, the judges claim. But given the central, presumptive role of literacy in our democracy, and using "guidance" from legal history and previous Supreme Court cases, the Sixth Circuit found that the state surely holds a minimum responsibility in preparing citizens to participate in their democracy.
"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 court held.
“Where, as Plaintiffs allege here, 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,” the decision goes on to state. “It may never be that each child born in this country has the same opportunity for success in life, without regard to the circumstances of her birth. But even so, the Constitution cannot permit those circumstances to foreclose all opportunity, and deny a child literacy without regard to her potential.”
However, in a fiery dissent, Justice Eric E. Murphy, a Trump appointee who joined the court last year, disagreed with the majority.
“This positive right to a minimum education will jumble our separation of powers,” Murphy wrote, adding that it will likely end up dragging the federal courts into “a host of education disputes” that will encroach upon the states’ rights to find creative solutions to educational issues.
“How should the courts remedy the schools that they conclude are not meeting the constitutionally required quality benchmarks? May they compel states to raise their taxes to generate the needed 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?” Murphy questions. “What minimum amount of training must teachers receive? Which HVAC systems must public schools use? Our judicial commissions give us no special insights into these difficult questions of educational policy.”
But in their majority opinion, Justices Jane Branstetter Stranch (an Obama appointee) and Eric L. Clay (a Clinton appointee) hold that education issues, particularly those involving racial discrimination, have frequently been addressed in the courts.
"The denials of education seen in these cases and beyond are now universally accepted as serious injustices, ones that conflict with our core values as a nation," the decision states. "Furthermore, the substantial litigation devoted to addressing these exclusions reveals the unparalleled value assigned to literacy, which is viewed by our society as essential for students to obtain even a chance at political and economic opportunity."
In a statement, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan applauded the decision.
“Today's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that Detroit schoolchildren have a right to basic facilities, teaching, and educational materials is a major step forward," Duggan said in a statement. "Literacy is something every child should have a fair chance to attain. We hope instead of filing another appeal, the parties sit down and focus on how to make literacy available to every child in Michigan.”