Lawsuit: Detroit Students Have a Constitutional Right to Literacy

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Lawsuit: Detroit Students Have a Constitutional Right to Literacy

Imani Gandy

Students say they're forced to attend “schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions and lacking the most basic educational opportunities.”

Overcrowded classrooms, summer classroom temperatures soaring above 90 degrees, and infestations of mice and cockroaches are among the allegations in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and various state education officials.

Seven Detroit students filed the lawsuit on behalf of students enrolled at five schools that are among the lowest performing schools in Detroit, alleging that state officials have violated children’s constitutional rights by permitting high illiteracy rates at the city’s underperforming schools.

The students suing state officials hail from three Detroit Public Schools Community District schools—Osborn Academy of Mathematics, the Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy, and the Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody—and two charter schools—Hamilton Academy and Experiencia Preparatory Academy.

The lawsuit alleges that students at these schools are forced to attend “schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions and lacking the most basic educational opportunities that children elsewhere in Michigan and throughout the nation take for granted.”

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“Plaintiffs sit in classrooms where not even the pretense of education takes place, in schools that are functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy,” according to the complaint.

The whopping 136-page complaint charges that students have a fundamental right of access to literacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment and that failure to provide access to literacy is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The complaint further alleges that the state’s policies and practices violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment by depriving students of their right to access to literacy and by failing to provide access to literacy equal to that of other students in Michigan’s public schools.

The plaintiffs charged that state practices discriminate against them on the basis of race: the plaintiffs’ schools serve more than 97 percent children of color and primarily students from low-income households in one of the most economically and racially segregated school districts in the country, according to a recent report released by EdBuild.

“The abysmal conditions and appalling outcomes in Plaintiff’s schools are unprecedented,” the plaintiffs allege in the complaint. “And they would be unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations.”

The state of Michigan is no stranger to lawsuits regarding subpar education opportunities in Detroit. In the 1970 case Milliken v. Bradley, a group of Black parents collaborated with the Detroit chapter of the NAACP to file a suit alleging that government action had led to racial segregation in Detroit public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that desegregation efforts couldn’t be enforced across school district borders, which paved the way for district borders to be used as lawful tools of segregation.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are hoping for a better result in this lawsuit, which would be the first lawsuit to argue that children have a constitutional right to literacy.

“What this is trying to do is build on what the Supreme Court has already said,” Dean Chemerinsky said in an interview conducted by Karen Sloan of In Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case, the Supreme Court said that denying literacy to some students is an equal protection violation.

“I think if this suit succeeds, it will be a model for suits in many other cities across the country,” Chemerinsky continued. “I think this has the potential to be the Brown v. Board of Education for the next generation. Brown, in 1954, said that schools could never be separate but equal.”