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Federal Judge: There Is No Constitutional Right to Literacy

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 12, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last year, students in the Detroit Public School system sued the State of Michigan, claiming "their school buildings, unlike those of other Michigan students, are replete with conditions 'that make learning nearly impossible' ... that their schools, unlike other Michigan students', lack enough teachers to hold classes in which they would learn to read [and] unlike other Michigan students, they lack books necessary to attain literacy." These defects in their education, they alleged, amounted to a denial of their constitutional right to access to literacy.

But a federal judge disagreed this week, ruling that there is no fundamental right of access to literacy under the U.S. Constitution, and dismissing the case. Here's a look at why.

A Race to the Bottom

The issue of race was inextricably intertwined in the legal issues argued in the case. While the Michigan Constitution requires every school district to "provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin," the students claimed that the disparate treatment they received was based on race. Four of the five schools involved in the suit are at least 97 percent African-American and the fifth is 31 percent African-American and 64 percent Latino.

But U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III wasn't swayed. While conceding that the "conditions and outcomes of Plaintiffs' schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating," Judge Murphy found that their complaint "does not state any instance where Defendants intervened in a school with a different racial makeup and treated that school disparately." Instead, according to the court, the students "advance a kind of ambivalence theory" -- claiming the state could treat their schools the way they treat other Michigan schools -- but that argument "fails to state an equal-protection claim," and therefore the case must be dismissed.

Plain English

Judge Murphy wasn't completely dismissive of the students' plight, however. "Plainly," he wrote, "literacy -- and the opportunity to obtain it -- is of incalculable importance":

When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury -- and so does society. But the Court is faced with a discrete question: does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy? Based on the foregoing analysis, the answer to the question is no.

According to the American Bar Association, the students and their attorneys have already vowed to appeal the decision. "The court got it tragically wrong when it characterized access to literacy as a privilege," the students' lawyer, Mark Rosenbaum, said in a statement. "Children from affluent communities in Michigan do not attend schools in their communities lacking teachers, books and safe and sanitary conditions, and children of color and from less advantaged communities are entitled to no less."

But whether the U.S. Constitution requires the state to provide more, may be a separate question.

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