Appeals court: Detroit students have fundamental right to education

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Detroit students have a fundamental but limited right to basic minimum education and have standing to sue the state for alleged violations of that right.

In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court panel warned that the right to education “is narrow in scope” to include access to skills deemed “essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties, most importantly participation in our political system.”

“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," according to the majority opinion.

But the appeals panel ruled the students failed to make adequate arguments about equal protection and compulsory attendance at schools that are "schools in name only."

The lawsuit has been closely been watched by education, legal and civil rights experts, some of whom have said it would end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In the 2016 case, seven Detroit students alleged a lack of books, classrooms without teachers, poor building conditions and extreme temperatures deprived them access to literacy in their public schools. The state of Michigan countered that decreased student enrollment triggered a loss of money to Detroit schools and that the state is not responsible for what happened in the district during two decades of on-again, off-again oversight.

Detroit U.S. District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy III, an appointee of President George W. Bush, originally dismissed the students' claim of a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, which the divided panel reversed. 

The Honorable Eric Clay, former law clerk of Judge Keith, speaks during the funeral.

The Supreme Court has never decided whether a right to education or right to literacy exists, Judge Eric Clay wrote in the majority opinion that was joined by Judge Jane Stranch, an appointee of President Barack Obama.

"After employing the reasoning of these Supreme Court cases and applying the Court’s substantive due process framework, we recognize that the Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education,” said Clay, an appointee for President Bill Clinton. “In short, without the literacy provided by a basic minimum education, it is impossible to participate in our democracy,” the opinion says. 

Judge Eric Murphy, an appointee of President Donald Trump, vigorously dissented, arguing there is no explicit right to education in the U.S. Constitution.  

The state is reviewing the court’s decision, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is listed as the defendant in the case since the original defendant, former Gov. Rick Snyder, has left office. 

But Brown noted Whitmer's opposition to the suit is not related to the question of a student's right to literacy. The Democratic governor has argued the state should not be culpable because Detroit public schools are now back under local control, she said.

“Although certain members of the state Board of Education challenged the lower court decision that students did not have a right to read, the governor did not challenge that ruling on the merits,” Brown said. “We’ve also regularly reinforced that the governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read.” 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who opposed Whitmer's position, praised the decision.

“I am overjoyed with the court’s decision recognizing that the Constitution guarantees a right to a basic minimum education,” said Nessel, a fellow Democrat. “This recognition is the only way to guarantee that students who are required to attend school will actually have a teacher, adequate educational materials, and a physical environment that does not subject them to filth, unsafe drinking water, and physical danger."

Supreme Court a hurdle

The symbolic significance of the decision is huge, but the practical significance is limited because many of the details of how the ruling is applied will have to be worked out through litigation in district court, said Kristine Bowman, professor of law and education policy at Michigan State University's College of Education. 

"The U.S. Supreme Court has never answered that question of whether there is a federal right to education and so the analysis by this court is groundbreaking," Bowman said. 

Should the decision be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, plaintiffs would have a hard go of making their arguments to the conservative majority on the court, she said. Conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents hold a 5-4 edge.

"I don’t think there’s any chance they’d get an opinion as good as this," Bowman said. But she noted there are elements of the Sixth Circuit decision that would appeal to the conservative majority, including an extensive reliance on historical evidence and originalist principles.

"That is the type of analysis and argument that is more appealing to conservative judges," she said.

'Thrilling historic victory'

Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the Detroit students, called the decision Thursday "a thrilling historic victory for the community of Detroit that has carried on the struggle for educational justice for decades...." 

"It affirms in these troubled times why our judicial system exists," Rosenbaum said in a statement. "Every Michigander who loves children should cheer this decision."

The decision is “a blessing from God," said Jamarria Hall, a 2017 graduate of Detroit’s Osborn High School and plaintiff in the lawsuit.

It gives Hall, now 20, hope for his cousins, nieces and nephews who are or will be attending Detroit schools, where his father is a teacher. 

“The fight is not over, it gives us at least a foot through the door,” he said. “It lets us know that our voices are not going unheard.”

Hall, who lives in Florida, said he’s planning to enroll in school there this fall to study accounting and business. He delayed studies he was enrolled for this semester due to the pandemic.

Hall said he grew up playing basketball and believing it was his only chance for a bright future. He never would have expected to play a role in such a critical case for education, he said. 

“For the people who don’t have a voice, a lot of times we do not get heard,” Hall said. “For people like me that can get heard, we have to speak out not just for ourselves, but for everyone.”

The state of Michigan’s argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it seeks remedies for past harms was rejected by the two judges. The student plaintiffs are seeking to improve the current condition of schools, according to the ruling, not asking for a payout for past wrongs.

The two judges also dismissed the state’s argument that it should not be implicated in the lawsuit because the schools were now under local control, noting that the funding, policy and oversight of schools lies at least in part with the state. 

The state’s argument essentially creates “a liability catch-22, in which plaintiffs are forced to instead seek injunctive relief against local officials, only to be told that the resources they need can only come from the state,” Clay wrote. 

“In sum, it is evident from the Michigan Constitution and statutes, as well as its prior interventions in the school system, that the state retains significant authority over Detroit’s public schools,” the decision said.

But the judges denied the students’ argument that their rights to equal protection were violated and said the students had not provided enough facts to prove “compulsory attendance” at a school that was a “school in name only." In both instances, the district court could let the student plaintiffs amend and strengthen the claims, the two judges said.

The conditions in Detroit schools were “awful,” but there are no allegations of “any disparity in the state’s allocation of resources between their schools and others," Clay wrote. 

“To state such a claim, plaintiffs must identify the actions taken or policies implemented by Defendants that treated their schools differently from others in the state and caused the disparities at issue in this case,” he said.

Dissent: No explicit constitutional right

In his dissent, Judge Eric Murphy upheld the district court’s dismissal “in all respects” and argued the issue in Detroit schools was a policy issue best left to lawmakers rather than a constitutional one to be decided by judges.

Unlike rights to free speech or a jury trial, education is not explicitly provided for in the U.S. Constitution, he wrote. 

Judges do not sit in the Legislature or on a local school board “and I see nothing in the complaint that gives federal judges the power to oversee Detroit’s schools in the name of the United States Constitution,” the dissent said.

Judge Eric Murphy questioned whether the decision would force cities to raise taxes, offer school choice or dictate the replacement of books or HVAC systems.

The majority opinion, he wrote, ensures that “the states that make up this circuit now must meet the school-quality standards that federal judges find necessary to enforce the plaintiffs’ nebulous right to ‘access literacy.’”

Detroit’s public school district can’t collect a single penny of taxes to address nearly $543 million in needed repairs.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the ruling that Detroit school children have a right to basic facilities, teaching and educational materials a "major step forward."

"Literacy is something every child should have a fair chance to attain," Duggan said. "We hope instead of filing another appeal, the parties sit down and focus on how to make literacy available to every child in Michigan.”