Column: Public education a basic right

Kary L. Moss

Earlier this month, lawyers representing Detroit schoolchildren argued in federal court that the state has failed children in three public schools by not giving them the most fundamental tool required for learning – basic literacy. Equally ambitious, the case asserts an idea that is not radical but is, in fact, a core value of our democracy. That is – that all children have a right to an education. While the state has recently increased its investments in the Detroit Public Schools, it is simply not enough.

In 1972 the Supreme Court, in a famous case called Rodriguez v. Texas, interpreted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as not guaranteeing children a right to an education no matter where they are born. Now is the time to re-examine that interpretation of the Constitution.

Our failure as a society to embrace this most basic value – of education as a basic right – is in stark contradiction to the ambitious dreams for this country that are expressed in our Constitution – the principles of individual freedom, protection against arbitrary government action, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, due process of law, equal protection and privacy.

The Constitution expresses our nation’s values and it has rested with us – the people – to give those values meaning by putting cases in front of the courts that have allowed the Constitution to adapt to modern conditions.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the rights enshrined in our Constitution were even enforced which meant that those rights were largely meaningless for ordinary people, particularly those without power or access to resources. The courts are where Mildred and Richard Loving went to secure the right to marry. There are where Linda Brown went to challenge legal segregation in public schools. They are where Planned Parenthood Executive Director Estelle Griswold went to gain the right to access to contraception or where Edie Windsor went whose advocacy brought down the Defense of Marriage Act.

They are where we have just been to protect over 114 Iraqis who live here, in Michigan, and have been arrested for deportation.

The ability though to rely on the courts to address issues of quality in public education and school financing were severely limited by Rodriguez. Today, those who care deeply about public education have very few options in face of the kind of inequalities that exist in our public schools. State legislatures refuse to fix broken funding systems or address the persistence of segregation in our schools because of strong partisanship, shrinking budgets, and vastly different philosophies about our duty to all our children. This leaves ordinary people with few options.

So, in Flint, we are leading a fight in the courtroom to help children who were harmed by the infliction of lead through their drinking water that poured into their schools and homes through the state’s actions by suing under federal laws that protect children with disabilities. In another case, we are challenging a decision by the legislature to allow $2.5 million in public funds to be used for fire drills, inspections and other state requirements at private schools because it violates our state Constitution.

So while it may be true that the governor and Legislature supported recent reforms in DPS, they have not done enough. Detroit schools will continue to struggle until the system of school financing is fixed and incentives in place to attract highly qualified teachers.

Flint schools will continue to struggle as long as the State refuses to ensure that every child be given what they need to overcome the infliction of lead upon their minds and bodies and receive a meaningful education.

All our public schools will struggle if public funds are siphoned into the private sector.

It is through the advocacy of children and their parents, teachers, school associations, school social workers and health professions who assert the idea that public education is a fundamental right that we can fully embrace the idea that the minds of our children are our most vital national resource.

Kary L. Moss is executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.