In ‘historic legal decision,’ court rules education is a fundamental right

Photo by Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

In 2016, a group of Detroit students filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan claiming their right to a “basic minimum education” was being infringed upon when the district was under state emergency management. And on Thursday, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor.

In a 2-1 ruling, a federal Court of Appeals panel decided that Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) students have a “fundamental right to a basic minimum education” in the case of Gary B. v. Whitmer, sometimes known as the “right to read” lawsuit.

The suit, which was originally filed against the state during then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, demanded Detroit students have “access to literacy by ensuring that they are provided with evidence-based, grade-appropriate programs for literacy instruction and intervention and monitoring conditions that deny students access to literacy such as lack of teachers and deplorable school conditions.” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is now listed as the defendant in her role as governor.

Do Michigan kids have a ‘right to read?’ Activists await ruling in Detroit lawsuit.

U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric L. Clay wrote in an opinion Thursday that this is “no small matter.”

This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide,” Clay said. “But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance. Access to literacy is such a right.”

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the “historic legal decision” shines a light on some of the challenges the district faces, crediting the failures to the state.

“This is a victory because it validates what Detroiters have been saying all along – Detroit students deserve better and the state of Michigan needs to be held accountable to address that injustice,” Vitti said. “We can only hope that the Governor will seek to settle this case and work to remedy the State’s violation of Detroit students’ constitutional right to access to literacy.”

Whitmer previously supported the lawsuit. However, Deputy Solicitor General Eric Restuccia — who works for the Department of Attorney General, but was representing Whitmer — in June signed a motion that said the case should be dismissed, as the Advance previously reported.

Whitmer calls for state’s removal from literacy suit

The state’s lawyers argue that the district is now under local control and the state is no longer led by Snyder, whose administration appointed the most recent emergency manager.

“We respect everything the Governor has, and is, trying to do for traditional public education throughout the state and in Detroit. However, it is time for her to stop listening to her attorneys and rely on her instincts. She knows the state was wrong,” Vitti said. 

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said the office is reviewing the court’s decision.

“Although certain members of the State Board of Education challenged the lower court decision that students did not have a right to read, the Governor did not challenge that ruling on the merits,” Brown said in an email. “We’ve also regularly reinforced that the governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel has supported the students and filed an amicus brief stating that she believes basic education should be a fundamental right. However, the brief was rejected by the court, which noted attorneys from her office are representing the state. 

Nessel praised the court’s decision Thursday.  

“I am overjoyed with the Court’s decision recognizing that the Constitution guarantees a right to a basic minimum education,” Nessel said. “This recognition is the only way to guarantee that students who are required to attend school will actually have a teacher, adequate educational materials, and a physical environment that does not subject them to filth, unsafe drinking water and physical danger. Education is a gateway to exercising other fundamental rights such as free speech and the right to citizenship, it is essential in order to function in today’s complex society, and it is a necessary vehicle to empower individuals to rise above circumstances that have been foisted on them through no fault of their own.”

Nessel breaks with Whitmer in Detroit literacy lawsuit

Detroit Mayor Duggan also praised the ruling, calling it a “major step forward.”

Literacy is something every child should have a fair chance to attain. We hope instead of filing another appeal, the parties sit down and focus on how to make literacy available to every child in Michigan,” Duggan said. 

Helen Moore, a Detroit resident who has been vocal in her support for the plaintiffs, told the Advance Thursday, “It’s been a long time coming and finally, we may see justice for our Black and Brown children. The court was right.”

Advance reporter Ken Coleman contributed to this story.