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Federal Appeals Court sides with Detroit public school students in "literacy" lawsuit

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

A federal appeals court has handed a victory to Detroit public school students suing for the “right to literacy.”

One of the attorneys in the case called the ruling “historic.”

The 2016 lawsuitwas filed against the state of Michigan on behalf of students from several of Detroit’s worst performing schools.

The suit blames substandard academic performance on poor conditionswithin their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials.

But in 2018, U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III dismissed the suit.

Murphy sided with attorneys for former Gov. Rick Snyder and state education department officials who argued “access to literacy is not a fundamental right.”

Murphy wrote “the State's alleged failure to provide literacy access to Plaintiffs fails to state an equal-protection claim on the basis of burdening a fundamental right.”  

But Thursday, in a two to one decision, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the U.S. Constitution includes a basic right to education.  

“Though Plaintiffs failed to adequately plead their equal protection and compulsory attendance claims, the same cannot be said for their central theory: that they have been denied a basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy.”

Attorney Carter Philips praised the decision, calling it "a bold step" in recognizing a fundamental constitutional right of access to literacy."  

Mark Rosenbaum is another attorney representing the students who filed the lawsuit. He says “Every Michigander who loves children should cheer this decision."

State officials named in to the lawsuit were more circumspect in their comments.

A Michigan Department of Education spokesman declined to comment, saying the department “does not comment on pending litigation.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s spokeswoman says they are “are reviewing the court's decision.”

But spokeswoman Tiffany Brown added “the governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read.”

The case now returns to the lower court.

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hopes further litigation would not be necessary.

Duggan says he hopes “the parties sit down and focus on how to make literacy available to every child in Michigan.”

In 2018, Detroit school officials released a report pegging the cost of repairing the city’s school facilities at half a billion dollars.

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Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.