July 02–Plaintiffs plan to appeal a closely watched federal lawsuit — dismissed Friday by a judge in Detroit — that accuses Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials of depriving Detroit children of their right to literacy.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III asserted in his ruling that as important as literacy is, the U.S.Constitution doesn’t guarantee a fundamental right to literacy.
The students and families who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit said Monday they would appeal the ruling to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Friday’s decision is as deeply disappointing as having to file a lawsuit in the first place to ensure that the state of Michigan denies no child the opportunity to thrive in schools worthy of their desire to learn,” Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel law firm, said in a statement.
He said the court “got it tragically wrong when it characterized access to literacy as a privilege, instead of a right held by all children so that they may better their circumstances and meaningfully participate in our political system.”
He said in a later interview that he doesn’t believe the plaintiff argument is a stretch and said children shouldn’t have to go to schools where they don’t have adequate supplies, where the curriculum is outdated and where the buildings are crumbling. He also noted that students in the city, on average, perform far below the state average on standardized exams and students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District have the worst literacy scores among big-city districts on a rigorous national exam.
“I don’t think you can square that constitutionally or morally,” Rosenbaum said.
“I was just in a (Detroit) school three weeks ago where it was 90 degrees. I looked at books that were dated 1998. I saw classrooms with mice running around. That’s the sort of system you build when you don’t care about children, when you treat children as disposable, when you believe they can’t and shouldn’t learn.”
The lawsuit was filed when the Detroit school district was under the years-long control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Since 2017, an empowered, elected school board oversees the district and a new leader, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, has been working the last year to transform the district. Vitti has been up against a curriculum deemed weak and outdated by an audit, and an independent review of facilities that found $500 million is needed to fix the district’s school buildings.
Murphy, both in an August hearing in the case and in his ruling, addressed the poor condition of schools in the city. In the 40-page ruling, he said, “The conditions and outcomes of plaintiffs’ schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating.”
Murphy also noted that literacy, and the opportunity to obtain it, “is of incalculable importance. As plaintiffs point out, voting, participating meaningfully in civic life, and accessing justice require some measure of literacy.”
But those points, Murphy said, “do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right.” And, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that the importance of a good or service “does not determine whether it must be regarded as fundamental.”
The lawsuit sought remedies that included literacy reforms, a systemic approach to instruction and intervention, as well as fixes to crumbling schools.
Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University professor and constitutional expert, said he’s not surprised by the judge’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court has indicated very strongly that it’s not about to create any new fundamental rights,” Sedler said. “It’s not that I particularly favor the result. But I think the judge’s decision is supported by existing doctrine.”
Sedler said that doesn’t mean lawsuits like this one shouldn’t be pursued.
“You never know. You make your best arguments. You try to persuade the court,” Sedler said.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which represented the defendants, referred requests for comment to the governor’s office. Ari Adler, spokesman for Snyder, declined to comment on the pending litigation.
“But I would point out that Gov. Snyder has always been committed to doing what he can to ensure students in Detroit get a proper education so that Detroit’s comeback can be complete.”
Evan Caminker, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said in a statement that the lawsuit doesn’t seek to restructure the state’s system of education.
“It merely asks the state to ensure that all Detroit schoolchildren have sufficient teachers, textbooks, and classrooms to enjoy the same building blocks of a minimally adequate education that are assured without thinking elsewhere across Michigan,” Caminker said.
“Consigning already disadvantaged young students to a shell of a functioning school is not just immoral and unwise; it runs counter to basic constitutional principles as well.”
Wytrice Harris, a Detroit parent and organizer with the community group 482Forward, which filed a brief in support of the plaintiff’s case, said that after reading Murphy’s ruling — where he sided with the plaintiffs on some aspects of the case — “it did feel like a slap in the face that he didn’t go the full way.” Of the appeal, she said, “I really hope something comes out of it.”
“It’s like the kids are waiting on the adults to finish fighting before they get the hope they need.”
This article provided by NewsEdge.