Appeals Court Hears Detroit Lawsuit Over Whether Access to Literacy Is a Constitutional Right

November 5, 2019 Updated: November 6, 2019

Literacy is fundamental to many aspects of one’s private and public life, ranging from applying for better-paying jobs to writing to elected officials. But is literacy, or more specifically, the opportunity for literacy through public education, a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution? That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit recently brought to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by a group of Detroit area students, who argue their poorly functioning school district has deprived their access to literacy.

The case, seen by many as an unprecedented attempt to establish that literacy is a constitutional right, was heard before a panel of three judges on Oct. 24 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dozens of students, parents, and the teachers from Detroit rallied outside the courthouse in support of the lawsuit.

Through a Californian public interest law firm, the youths sued against the state of Michigan in 2016, claiming the conditions of their schools are so poor and inadequate that they were denied access to literacy, thus violating their rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. These clauses, ratified right after the Civil War, say that no state can deny any person life, liberty, or property without due process of the law and also prevents states from denying equal protection of the laws to any person.

“Instead of providing students with a meaningful education and literacy, the State simply provides buildings—many in serious disrepair—in which students pass days and then years with no opportunity to learn to read, write, or comprehend,” the lawsuit paper (pdf) states. The document presents a host of examples demonstrating the troubled education environment, including 11th and 12th graders were taught from materials labeled for elementary school, and long-term substitutes who were unfamiliar with teaching materials showing movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Frozen” instead of giving lectures.

In one case, an eighth grade student was put in charge of teaching both seventh and eighth grade math classes for a month because no math teacher was available.

Before making its way up to the Court of Appeals, the case had been dismissed last year after U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III ruled in favor of then-governor Rick Snyder, saying that as important as literacy is, a state has no constitutional responsibility to provide its citizens with minimally adequate education that develops literacy.

“In other words, access to literacy is not a fundamental right—at least not in the positive-right sense,” the judge wrote (pdf). “Accordingly, the State’s alleged failure to provide literacy access to Plaintiffs fails to state an equal protection claim on the basis of burdening a fundamental right.”

While the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to literacy, the Supreme Court so far has not confirmed nor denied it either, which arguably leaves room for interpretation. The appeal will be decided by three judges: Eric L. Clay, a Clinton appointee; Jane Branstetter Stranch, an Obama appointee; and and Eric E. Murphy, who was appointed by President Donald Trump earlier this year. They are expected to issue a written opinion on the matter in the next few months.

According to the latest result of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is better known as The Nation’s Report Card, the average reading score for American fourth- and eighth-graders saw a decline since 2017. Mississippi was the only state to improve in 2019 in fourth-grade reading, and District of Columbia was the only one that improved in eighth grade reading. Fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states, and eighth-grade reading fell in 31.

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