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Federal appeals court: American students have a right to literacy

Does the U.S. Constitution guarantee the right to a basic level of education? The document doesn’t directly say so, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has recently ruled that it does guarantee the right to basic literacy. This is because literacy is fundamental to exercising the rights that are directly mentioned in the Constitution, such as the right to vote.

In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has expressed a seemingly contrary view. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the high court ruled on a 5-4 vote that families in poor districts have no right to demand the same levels of funding provided to wealthier districts. It acknowledged that the system was not fair but determined that the Constitution offered no remedy to those receiving a less valuable education.

Based on that precedent, a federal district judge dismissed this lawsuit in 2018. The lawsuit stems from the experiences of students at five schools in Detroit that were severely underfunded. The conditions were stark: the buildings were in massive disrepair, there were insufficient numbers of textbooks, and there were major teacher shortages.

Worse than educational disparities; this was simple inadequacy

At one school, according to NPR, a math teacher quit after being frustrated by the large class size and lack of administrative support. The district was unable to find a substitute teacher. Ultimately, an eighth grader was tasked with teaching seventh and eighth grade math for a month.

Other classes were taught by paraprofessionals or Teach for America volunteers. When teachers were sick or quit, students were routinely sent to gym or given movies to watch.

The schools were so hot in summer that students fainted, and so cold in winter that it was routine to wear coats and hats in class. The buildings were infested with rodents and bugs. Windows were shattered. One student said a class of 34 had only six textbooks.

Student proficiency scores “hover near zero in nearly all subject areas,” reads the complaint. “Illiteracy is the norm.”

The Sixth Circuit reinstated the lawsuit, arguing that a novel question had arisen. In past cases such as San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the argument had been about equity. Do states have are responsibility to remediate marked inequities in education?

This was not a case about equity, the appellate panel determined. It was a case about whether the Detroit Public Schools were providing even minimal education. Instead of arguing that the playing field should be level, they plaintiffs essentially argued that there is no “playing field” unless students have realistic access to basic literacy skills.

The case will now be remanded to the trial court.