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Detroit schools "right-to-read" suit asks: What kind of education must state provide?

Robert Bobb was the first in a series of emergency managers who ran the Detroit Public Schools from 2009-2016.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio
Robert Bobb was the first in a series of emergency managers who ran the Detroit Public Schools from 2009-2016.

Does the state have to ensure that all Michigan students get at least a “basic education?”

That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of students at five Detroit schools, and that lawyers battled over in federal court on Thursday.

This “right-to-read” lawsuit argues that conditions at those five schools are so bad, they are unconstitutional. Those conditions include lacking sufficient numbers of qualified teachers, books, labs and computers; and where classroom temperatures range from freezing to over 100 degrees,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint.

“The core question here is whether or not the state can run an educational system, and require students to attend, where basically for a small group of citizens, these are schools in name only,” said Evan Caminker, a University of Michigan law professor and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in this case.

“These are the basic hallmarks that we all know are part of an education. And there’s a group of students at these schools in Detroit that don’t know that, because that’s not their experience when they are forced to go to school on a daily basis.”

But the state has asked that the case be dismissed.

Timothy Haynes of the Michigan Attorney General’s office told Judge Stephen Murphy the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly ruled there’s no fundamental constitutional right to an education, even a “minimally adequate education.”

Haynes also said it’s “false as a matter of law” that the state controls the education provided in these schools.

He told Murphy that “local sub-divisions provide education in the state of Michigan.” He argued that’s true even in cases like the Detroit Public Schools, where the state has controlled the district in some form for most of the past 18 years, including under five emergency managers from 2009-2016.

But Haynes said other federal courts have not only upheld the state’s emergency manager law as constitutional, but defined emergency managers as “local officials,” even though they are state-appointed.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Rosenbaum told Murphy that argument was “silly.”

“If you can’t break something at Pottery Barn and leave it behind, the state can’t do that here,” Rosenbaum said.

State courts in Michigan and elsewhere have ruled against such “right-to-read” lawsuits, finding there’s no fundamental right to a basic education, even when state law compels children to attend school.

And Caminker said that while the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled there’s no fundamental right to an education per se, it’s left open the question “of whether or not the state at least has to provide a minimal floor, at least enough education in the basics, so that students can benefit from that education and become functioning adults in our society.”

Judge Murphy seemed to agree the Supreme Court had “left the door open for the plaintiffs’ case here,” but questioned what remedies the court would have in this case. Murphy said he expects to rule on the state’s order to dismiss sometime next month.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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