Jacques: Suit could give schools to courts

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

It’s hard to think of a priority more basic—and important—than giving young people a strong foundation of education. But the extent to which the courts should interfere with how states run their public schools is another matter.

The role of courts in school finances and performance could dramatically change depending on the outcome of a lawsuit filed this week on behalf of Detroit students.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Public Counsel, a California public interest law firm, alleges that seven students in Detroit are being denied their right of access to literacy. The students attend both Detroit Public Schools and city charter schools. And the suit specifically names Gov. Rick Snyder, the members of the State Board of Education, Superintendent Brian Whiston and other state officials as defendants.

Currently, no such right to literacy exists in the Constitution. The lawsuit seeks to change that.

Horrible building conditions, lack of resources and pathetic reading scores are all raised as major issues in the case. Not surprisingly, the Detroit Federation of Teachers is very much in support of the lawsuit. The Detroit teachers union has fought against state intervention these past years, and has placed all the blame for the district’s woes on poor state oversight and funding.

Think of this lawsuit as payback.

“It’s a very impressive legal team and a very important case,” says Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. While many districts in Michigan aren’t serving their students well, Moss says Detroit was a likely target given the years of direct state management.

Around the country, there have been no shortage of court battles relating to funding disparities and inadequate school budgets, But these fights have largely taken place in state courts. Michigan is now facing several such legal fights, after a state-commissioned adequacy study found the state is shortchanging its schools.

This lawsuit is different, in that it’s filed in federal court and seeks ultimately a U.S. Supreme Court decision that there is a constitutional right to an education.

If this particular case reaches the High Court, it would be the first time since 1973 that the court decided a major school funding suit. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court ruled that funding schools based on local property taxes did not violate the Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal protection clause—despite disparities between wealthy and poor districts.

In that ruling, the court also stated that education is not a fundamental right in the Constitution.

This case is reminiscent of one filed on behalf of Highland Park students in 2012 in state court. The ACLU of Michigan argued that students were being denied their “right to read,” which is guaranteed in state law. The state constitution also requires the Legislature to “maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools.”

But the Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the Michigan constitution only specifies the state provide the infrastructure for education —not the quality of the education itself.

The Detroit federal lawsuit demands the court to force the state to deliver “appropriate, evidence-based literacy” instruction and to address deplorable building conditions that discourage teaching and learning.

If other cases are a hint at what may happen, the state should expect to shell out a lot more money if it loses.

In Williams v. State of California, filed in 2000 over similar bad conditions in schools, the state ended up settling for $1 billion.

This latest suit brings the school funding discussion full circle, asking the Supreme Court once again to find that equal access to a quality education is constitutionally protected. Depending on who wins the presidency, the court could easily flip to a liberal majority. That’s what the lawyers representing these Detroit kids anticipate.

Until now, federal courts have been wary to intervene in local control of schools and how the states operate and fund their districts. This case could create a new reality, and one that would hit state budgets hard.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques