Appeals Court: Basic Minimum Education Is a Fundamental Right

April 24, 2020 Updated: April 24, 2020

In a divided decision, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that basic minimum education and access to literacy is a fundamental right under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

“The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter,” wrote the 6th Circuit court in a 2-1 majority opinion (pdf). “Where, as plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy.”

In the 2016 case, a group of Detroit students sued the state of Michigan, alleging a lack of books, absence of qualified teachers, and poor building conditions deprived them of access to literacy in the public schools they attended. The suit argued the state violated the students’ rights to a basic minimum education as part of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection.

The 6th Circuit rejected the argument based on the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, but recognized that students have the right to a basic minimum education under the due process clause, as literacy is “essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties.”

“This amounts to an education sufficient to provide access to a foundational level of literacy—the degree of comprehension needed for participation in our democracy,” Judge Eric Clay, a Clinton appointee, wrote in the majority opinion that was joined by Obama-appointed Judge Jane Stranch.

While it is true that a court order cannot guarantee that educational opportunity is translated into student performance, according to Clay, the requirement to provide a basic minimum education means the state must ensure that students are afforded at least a “rudimentary educational infrastructure.”

Judge Eric Murphy, an appointee of President Donald Trump, argued in opposition that there is no explicit right to education in the U.S. Constitution, and it is simply not a federal court’s job to oversee public schools on behalf of students.

“This positive right to a minimum education will jumble our separation of powers. It will immerse federal courts in a host of education disputes far outside our constitutionally assigned role to interpret legal texts,” Murphy wrote in a dissenting opinion. “How should those courts remedy the schools that they conclude are not meeting the constitutionally required quality benchmarks?”

The U.S. Supreme Court has never directly addressed the question of whether there is a constitutional right to education or a right to literacy. In a 1973 decision about inequities in the public school system in San Antonio, Texas, the Supreme Court held there was no fundamental right to the “basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process.”