Editorial: Leave literacy fight out of court

The Detroit News

All children should have access to a good education that will provide them with the tools they need to succeed. Yet too many do not. That’s a real problem that school districts in Michigan and other states must address. Trying to force better outcomes through the courts, however, isn’t the way to do this.

A California-based law firm, Public Counsel, filed a lawsuit in federal court in September on behalf of seven students in Detroit. The suit claims these students, who attend both traditional public and charter schools in the city, are being denied their right of access to literacy. The lawsuit also blames bad building conditions for poor academic outcomes for students.

Gov. Rick Snyder, the members of the State Board of Education, Superintendent Brian Whiston and other state officials are named as defendants.

Snyder and others filed a 62-page motion that spells out there is no fundamental right to literacy. The motion asks the judge to reject the suit, which the attorneys say is “an attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”

There is already federal precedent regarding this issue.

This lawsuit is trying to force a different outcome, with the intent the case will land before the United States Supreme Court. A 1973 Supreme Court decision, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, found there is no constitutional right to an education.

That was the last time the Supreme Court decided a major school funding lawsuit.

Similar cases have been brought in state courts around the country, including Michigan. In 2012, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of Highland Park students, saying the children were being denied their right to read. But the state Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, finding the Michigan Constitution specifies the state provide only the infrastructure for education.

Lawyers with Public Counsel were clearly hoping for another Democrat in the White House who would change the makeup of the Supreme Court and boost the chances the court would reverse Rodriguez.

With Republican Donald Trump making the appointments, it’s much less likely the court would look favorably on this case —assuming it makes it that far.

The state is in the awkward position of arguing that students don’t have a right to literacy. But that doesn’t mean Snyder and education officials are indifferent to the quality of students’ education. The Legislature this summer passed a $617 million bailout for Detroit Public Schools, offering it the funds to combat the financial ills and past debts that have held it back.

Similarly, lawmakers in September passed bills that would end social promotion of students if they aren’t proficient in reading by third grade. The legislation also lays out a framework for intervention in early grades. And the two most recent budgets have included $63 million for early literacy.

Detroit’s education problems go well beyond money, which is the remedy most favored by the courts. The schools have been poorly run — recall that earlier this year, 13 district employees, mostly principals, were charged in a bribery scheme that robbed students of nearly $3 million in resources.

Federal courts are not the place to dictate school budgets and local decisions. The federal judge should dismiss this suit.