Michigan Suit Claims Constitutional Right to Literacy Under the U.S. Constitution

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Michigan Suit Claims Constitutional Right to Literacy Under the U.S. Constitution

Attorneys representing seven Detroit school children filed a 133- page class action complaint earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that the state of Michigan has disinvested in education in Detroit to such an extent that children lack fundamental access to literacy. Gary B. v. Snynder. The plaintiffs claim that “Achievement data reveal that in Plaintiffs’ schools, illiteracy is the norm. The proficiency rates in Plaintiffs’ schools hover near zero in nearly all subject areas.”

The complaint cites numerous studies that document the importance of learning literacy early in a child’s schooling career in order to succeed in school and in later life. It also alleges that the Detroit schools pervasively fail to provide Detroit’s students, almost all of whom are low income students of color, a reasonable opportunity to learn basic literacy skills:

The alarming outcomes in Plaintiffs’ schools are a predictable consequence of the State’s consignment of Plaintiffs to chaotic, under-resourced, and unsafe schools that lack the necessary learning and teaching conditions for effective delivery of literacy instruction.  Plaintiffs’ schools do not have appropriate literacy programs and curricula to effectively teach literacy in the first instance, or to intervene and remediate when students fall behind.  Nor does the State operate any system of accountability to ensure that students are delivered access to literacy, are assigned to classrooms where access to literacy can be delivered by qualified and trained teachers, and are identified when they fall behind to receive professionally appropriate interventions. …..

The Complaint states that the State of Michigan, which actually has run the Detroit schools for most of the past 15 years, is legally responsible for this state of affairs.

Plaintiffs’ legal theory is based on the proposition that there is a constitutional right to literacy under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Virtually all of the dozens of challenges to state funding systems and failures to provide students an adequate education that have been brought in recent decades have been filed in state courts, since the United States Supreme Court held in 1973 in Rodriguez v. San Antonio Ind’t School District that education is not a “fundamental interest” under the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiffs in this case are asserting that a failure to provide students an opportunity to learn basic literacy skills constitutes a violation of equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, and also constitutes racial discrimination under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They base their federal claim largely on the precedent of the Supreme Court’s holding in the 1982 case of Plyler v. Doe in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of children of undocumented immigrants to attend public schools in Texas because “Illiteracy is an enduring disability.  The inability to read and write will handicap the individual deprived of a basic education each and every day of his life.”

The plaintiffs are seeking relief that includes remedial classes to bring students up to grade level, screening for literacy problems, state monitoring and fixing school conditions that hinder learning.

The students are represented pro bono by Public Counsel, a major California public interest law firm; Sidley Austin LLP; Michigan law firm Miller Cohen PLC; University of Michigan Law School Professor Evan Caminker; and Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky at the University of California

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