Michigan Settles Lawsuit With Detroit Students, Promises $94 Million for Literacy Programs

May 15, 2020 Updated: May 15, 2020

The State of Michigan has agreed to settle a four-year legal battle with a group of Detroit students who argued the city’s low-performing public schools deprived their right to basic literacy skills.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday afternoon that as part of the settlement, she will propose legislation that would provide public schools in Detroit with at least $94.5 million for literacy programs. The state also agreed to provide an additional $2.7 million for Detroit schools to support many literacy-related projects, and a $280,000 payout among the seven students.

In the 2016 case, seven 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.

Whitmer, a Democrat, replaced Republican Gov. Rick Snyder as a defendant in the lawsuit after she was elected in 2018.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in a divided 2-1 opinion, ruled last month in favor of the students, recognizing basic minimum education and access to literacy as a fundamental right under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

“Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read—obstacles they never should have faced,” said Whitmer in a joint statement with seven plaintiffs. “I look forward to working with the legislature to provide funding for Detroit schools and districts across the state to help ensure educators and students have the resources they need for success.”

The settlement still faces uncertainty, as it needs to be approved by Michigan’s Republican-controlled state Legislature, which has a history of battling with the Democratic governor over education spending. The Michigan Legislature had asked the 6th Circuit last week to set aside its ruling, arguing that there is no explicit right to education in the U.S. Constitution and that the court has no authority to establish a constitutional right.

“No one would say that the Detroit public schools are performing at the level they should,” said John Bursch, an attorney who filed the petition on behalf of the Michigan Legislature. “But the answers for solving that problem cannot come from federal court supervision based on the creation of fundamental rights that no one would have recognized in the text of the [14th Amendment’s] due process clause.”