Editorial: Fight for education, but not in court

The Detroit News

A federal Appeals Court decision Thursday has revived a lawsuit over whether Detroit students have a constitutional right of access to literacy. That’s a shame, because the courts are not the place to make school funding decisions. Rather, those lie with state legislatures and local school boards.

The state should appeal the decision. 

Especially with Michigan coming out of this pandemic, the state is not in a financial position to deal with what could be extremely costly settlements that wouldn’t solve the underlying academic failures of struggling school districts. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been on the right side of this 2016 case, filed when Detroit Public Schools was in its darkest hour and had recently faced bankruptcy. The governor has tried to extricate the state from the suit, arguing that factors have changed drastically since the case began, with a state-funded bailout in addition to a return to local control and a new superintendent. 

Yet the California-based public interest law firm that filed the suit on behalf of Detroit students has always been less interested in this specific case and more focused on forcing the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has never held that a right to education exists in the Constitution.  

Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is technically representing the governor’s — and state’s — interests, has made it clear from the beginning of her tenure that she’s rooting for the other side. She even tried to submit an amicus brief to the Appeals Court, which it rejected. This is wholly unprofessional on her part. 

Helen White leads a group of protestors at the outside the federal courthouse in Cincinnati.

“I am overjoyed with the court’s decision recognizing that the Constitution guarantees a right to a basic minimum education,” Nessel stated.

The lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. district judge in Detroit in 2018, and plaintiffs appealed. Whitmer became a defendant in the lawsuit last May, replacing former Gov. Rick Snyder.

More:Editorial: Focus on Detroit literacy outside of court

More:Appeals court: Detroit students have fundamental right to education

A three-judge panel on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case, arguing 2-1 that the “state retains significant authority over Detroit’s public schools” and is consequently responsible for properly funding the district. 

Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, and Judge Jane Stranch, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, while Judge Eric Murphy, a President Donald Trump appointee, dissented. 

In his dissent, Murphy wrote: “If I sat in the state legislature or on the local school board, I would work diligently to investigate and remedy the serious problems that the plaintiffs assert. But I do not serve in those roles. 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 ... Their [the plaintiffs] novel request for a positive right to education will ‘mark a drastic change in our understanding of the Constitution.’”

That is what’s at the heart of the case — who should be deciding how schools are funded. It shouldn't be the courts.