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Is Literacy a Constitutional Right? The Battle Over Detroit Schools

By Dan Mangan
 | Nov 30, 2016

With the filing of a dismissal motion earlier this month in federal district court, the stage was set for a class action suit seeking redress for children in Detroit public schools on the basis of a denial of their constitutional right to literacy.

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, MI, allege they have been denied access to literacy by being deprived of evidence-based instruction and being subject to school conditions that prevent learning in violation of their rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan

Defendants in the case, filed in September, are the governor of Michigan, eight members of the Michigan State Board of Education, and three other education officials. The plaintiffs contend that decades of disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to Detroit schools on the part of state officials have denied them and other similarly situated school children access to the most basic building block of education: literacy.

Moreover the schools that the plaintiffs attend serve almost exclusively low-income children of color. The complaint asserts that the abysmal conditions in these schools would be unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations establishing that the schooling afforded the plaintiffs is both separate and unequal.

The plaintiffs contend that equal access to effective literacy instruction is a fundamental constitutional right. However, there is no federal case-law precedent directly establishing a right to literacy.

The plaintiffs rely heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case that dealt with a Texas statute that excluded undocumented children from the state’s public education system. The court stated that a status-based denial of basic education does not square with the framework of equality embodied in the Equal Protection Clause.

On November 17, 2016, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the class action complaint, a standard first reply to the initiation of a civil suit. The motion raises technical matters of legal procedure and jurisdiction, and it alleges substantive defects in the plaintiffs’ case.

Defining literacy

How the Detroit plaintiffs define literacy is intrinsic to the structure of their argument. The complaint defines literacy as “the skill to decode letters and words, the ability to read and write well enough to access knowledge and communicate with the world, and the ability to compose, comprehend, synthesize, reflect upon, and critique.”

Building on this definition, the complaint claims that the necessary prerequisite for effective literacy education is a basic environment for teaching and learning. It then goes on to describe the most egregious components of the learning environment in Detroit public schools.

The schools are alleged to be vermin infested, have unsafe drinking water, and have extreme building temperatures. There is little support for the many children who have mental health needs, experience violent trauma, or are English learners. Teacher vacancy and high turnover are systemic, and classes are often taught by students or left unsupervised.

What these conditions have wrought is not surprising. Student achievement outcomes as measured by state and national testing data tied to the Detroit school system’s demographics are dismal, a fact the complaint ties to the lack of any system for literacy instruction and remediation.

To remedy the breakdown of meaningful education in Detroit’s schools, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the defendants to implement evidence-based programs for literacy instruction and to establish a system of statewide accountability for their performance, including monitoring, intervention, and the provision of compensatory and remedial education.

Who operates Detroit’s public schools?

The defendants assert that Michigan’s constitution only requires the legislature to maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools and that  local school districts have the responsibility to provide for the education of their pupils.

The state never ran Detroit’s schools, according to this argument; although, emergency managers have been appointed to supplant local authority when necessary. Consequently, the defendants claim they cannot be held responsible for an alleged denial of rights owed to the plaintiffs.

Prior to Michigan State’s sequence of administrative interventions, the defendants point out, the Detroit Public School District experienced steep operating losses that reached a deficit of more than $100 million by 1988. Pupil enrollment declined steadily since 1981, and the city’s population also shrank, resulting in an ever-decreasing tax base.

In response to this and other recession-driven emergencies in the state, Michigan enacted successive laws to address local government financial crises. These laws provide for state appointment of officials who act on behalf of local government. According to the defendants, the plaintiffs have conflated the state’s appointment of local officials with state control of local schools.

Constitutional claim a mere proxy

With respect to the plaintiffs’ claim of a constitutional right of access to effective literacy instruction, the defendants note that this putative right has no support in case law or in the text of the constitution.  The defendants cite San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, a 1973 case where the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question whether education is a fundamental right protected by the constitution and held that no such right exists.

The defendants contend that the claimed right of access to literacy is a mere proxy for a right to education, which not only presupposes something that was rejected in Rodriguez but also asks that the Constitution be used to guarantee an outcome of the educational process. Their reasoning is predicated on the conceptual overlap between the dictionary definitions of literacy and access.

Since literacy means “the ability to read and write,” according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and access means “the ability to make use of,” a person cannot obtain and make use of literacy without going through the process of becoming literate, and that process, the defendants assert, means nothing more than general education.

Furthermore, the defendants do not accept that other schools in the state constitute the appropriate comparison group for assessing the alleged disparate treatment. They insist that such comparisons must be contained to the same school district, a perspective that relieves them from discussing the schools' conditions outlined in the plaintiffs’ complaint, other than observing that such conditions equally affect all students in the same school regardless of race.

A decision on the defendant’s motion is not expected until early next year.

dan-manganDan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.

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