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U.S. Appeals Court in Detroit Schools Case Says Basic Literacy Instruction Is a Civil Right

 | Apr 27, 2020
Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan
at the time of the lawsuit filing

In a historic ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Thursday that a basic minimum education, “one that can plausibly impart literacy,” is a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Circuit Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part, the Federal District Court’s decision in Gary B. et al. v. Snyder et al. (now Whitmer et al.), the class action suit filed in 2016 against Detroit city schools, the Michigan governor, and a number of state officials on behalf of Detroit’s public school students.

There were several key findings and holdings in the Circuit Court’s two-to-one decision:

  • Courts have an obligation to recognize a right that is foundational to our system of self-governance and literacy is such a right
  • The role of basic literacy education in the broader framework of the U.S. Constitution suggests that it is essential to the exercise of other fundamental rights
  • Denials of education remedied in past civil rights cases are now universally accepted as serious injustices and have revealed the unparalleled value assigned to literacy as the key to opportunity
  • Although courts cannot prescribe specific educational outcomes, such as literacy or proficiency rates, a state must ensure that students are afforded a rudimentary infrastructure within which literacy can be attained
  • The contours of this infrastructure must at least include three basic components: facilities, teaching, and educational materials such as books

Marcie Craig Post, executive director of the International Literacy Association (ILA), applauded the decision, which is a major legal breakthrough for literacy advocates. “Literacy is the basic skill through which all other learning is acquired,” she noted, “and governments everywhere have an obligation to provide the basic educational supports reasonably necessary for all citizens to attain it.”

Post also emphasized that ILA, which signed on to the amicus curiae brief in Gary B. along with other educational organizations, will continue to support efforts to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. A favorable ruling there would become the law of the land.

Unique theory of action

What makes the legal argument in Gary B. unique is its focus on literacy as opposed to general educational attainment, a theory of action that has not proved successful in prior cases. The plaintiffs sought a judgment that access to basic literacy instruction should be accorded the status of a federal civil right and offered evidence that the state of Michigan had denied it to them.

The evidence included deteriorated and vermin-infested school buildings, high rates of teacher turnover, lack of instructional materials, and low performance on academic measures. The plaintiffs argued that without basic literacy skills, meaningful participation as citizens in the democratic process is not achievable.

There is as yet no U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing that access to effective literacy instruction is a constitutionally protected right. However, should the Gary B. litigation ever reach the Supreme Court, such a ruling could come.

For now, the right has been established in the Sixth Circuit, whose precedent binds the district courts of federal districts within Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

In remanding the case to the trial court, the Sixth Circuit also made additional rulings, one of which directs the trial judge to grant the class action plaintiffs leave to amend their denial of equal protection claim, which the court affirmed was not adequately pled. This step could open the door to further constitutional precedent down the line, assuming the plaintiffs can meet their burden of proof.

Dan Mangan is the director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.

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