Federal judge dismisses suit over literacy rights in Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Governor Rick Snyder speaks at the Michigan Science Center in this February 22, 2018 file photo. A federal judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Detroit students fighting to establish literacy is a U.S. constitutional right. Attorneys for Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials argued no fundamental right to literacy exists and asked the judge to reject what they called an “attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”


A federal judge has dismissed an unprecedented civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Detroit students fighting to establish literacy is a U.S. constitutional right.

In the suit filed in 2016 through a California public interest law firm, the youths alleged the conditions of their schools are so poor and inadequate they had not received the best education and were denied access to literacy on account of their races, violating their rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

But attorneys for Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials have said no fundamental right to literacy exists for Detroit schoolchildren. The lawyers had asked the judge to reject what they have called an “attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”

The state asked U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III to dismiss the case, saying the U.S. Supreme Court and Michigan courts do recognize the importance of literacy, but reject claims it is a legal right.

On Friday, Murphy stressed that the due process clause doesn't require Michigan to provide access to minimally adequate education.

"In other words, access to literacy is not a fundamental right — at least not in the positive-right sense," the judge wrote. "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."

Reached Friday night, Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney representing the students in the case, declined to comment before speaking with his clients.

Spokespersons for the governor's office could not be immediately reached. 

The suit argued the state has functionally excluded Detroit children from the state’s educational system. It sought class-action status and several guarantees of equal access to literacy, screening, intervention, a statewide accountability system and other measures.

Attorneys representing the students have said the filing highlights shocking problems in some Detroit schools and is the first of its kind in the nation that seeks to secure students’ legal right to literacy under the 14th Amendment.

In his ruling Friday, Murphy supported the significance of literacy in securing jobs and future plans but wrote "those points do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right."

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to education. And citing previous rulings, Murphy wrote :"The Court is left to conclude that the Supreme Court has neither confirmed nor denied that access to literacy if a fundamental right. The Court must therefore cautiously take up the task.”

He also rejected the argument that the students were targeted based on race.

"Although the Complaint clearly establishes that Plaintiffs' schools predominantly serve children of color—four of the five schools are at least 97 (percent) African American and the fifth is 31.1 (percent) African-American and 64.2 (percent) Latino... it makes no claim about the relevant comparator schools," Murphy wrote. "The only specific reference to the racial makeup of other schools is to Grosse Pointe, which has not experienced the relevant state interventions. ... Without this type of comparison, the Complaint fails to state a claim that Defendants have classified or otherwise differently treated Plaintiffs on account of race."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs also have cited widespread problems in the Detroit Public Schools Community district, including classrooms with vermin, teacher shortages, a lack of books and functioning computers and lab equipment. Meanwhile, Detroit has historically scored the lowest in the state and nation when its students were measured on standardized tests. 

However, Murphy ruled that was not enough, either.

"Plaintiffs must do more than point to the present conditions as ... evidence
that the State — and Defendants specifically — have acted irrationally," Murphy wrote. 

Murphy's ruling dismisses the case with prejudice, meaning it is now closed, according to the filing.

The case had attracted attention from national education groups. It also coincided with changes for the Detroit district, Michigan's largest, which had spent a decade under state oversight.

Since Nikolai Vitti was named its superintendent in 2017, he has sought significant changes citywide, including boosting teacher pay, removing outdated K-8 curriculum in reading and math, restoring art or music to all schools, as well as developing a three-year plan to prepare kids for either college or technical careers.

However, challenges such as teacher vacancies and deplorable building conditions persist. According to a report the district released last week, the cost to address widespread poor building conditions would cost $500 million.


Staff Writers Jennifer Chambers and Christine Ferretti contributed.