A historic appellate court ruling says kids have a constitutional right to literacy

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Nearly four years after seven Detroit school children sued a host of government officials over the "state of Michigan’s systemic, persistent, and deliberate failure to deliver instruction and tools essential for access to literacy," the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that students do indeed have a constitutional right to literacy — the first ruling of its kind, according to civil rights attorney and Senior Legal Counsel for the City of Detroit Eli Savit.

"This is really a landmark ruling," Savit told Mic in a phone call. "There's no two ways about it."

Thursday's decision is the latest milestone in a years-long effort to ensure educational justice by the student plaintiffs in Gary B. v. Snyder, a suit alleging that then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), as well the superintendent of Public Instruction and members of the state's board of education had engaged in prolonged "disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to Detroit schools." The result, the plaintiffs alleged, was a denial of their right to literacy.

Initially brought in 2016, the student's suit was dismissed in 2018 by Federal District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy III, who claimed that despite the "devastating" conditions found in several Detroit public schools, access to literacy was not a constitutional right.

"I was just in a (Detroit) school three weeks ago where it was 90 degrees," attorney Mark Rosenbaum, who represented the plaintiffs on behalf of Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, told the Detroit Free Press shortly after the suit was dismissed. "I looked at books that were dated 1998. I saw classrooms with mice running around. That's the sort of system you build when you don't care about children, when you treat children as disposable, when you believe they can't and shouldn't learn."

Among the allegations made in the students' initial suit were description of unsafe and filthy learning conditions, playgrounds littered with trash and bullets, and "in one case, an eighth grade student was put in charge of teaching seventh and eighth grade math classes for a month because no math teacher was available."

Rosenbaum and his team then appealed the case to the Sixth Circuit, where, on Thursday, a three-judge panel ruled that there is, in fact, a constitutional right to literacy, and that the students did have grounds to pursue their case.

"The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals today has said, 'Yes, indeed, the Constitution does protect that right, and the Detroit school children have alleged that conditions in Detroit were so bad that it violated their constitutional rights," says Savit, who helped file an amicus brief on behalf of the city of Detroit supporting the plaintiffs' appeal of Murphy's 2018 ruling. "I don't think you can overstate how important this is."

"There are kids in the classroom that deserve better."

That sentiment is shared by Carter Phillips, executive committee chair Emeritus at Sidley Austin LLP, who served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.

"The [Sixth Circuit] Court in Cincinnati took a bold step today in recognizing a fundamental constitutional right of access to literacy," Phillips said in a statement to Mic. "In doing so, [it] has given hope to the school children in Detroit who were so neglected for so long.”

In a separate statement to Mic, Rosenbaum described the ruling as "an historic decision for the community of Detroit." "It is an affirmation in these troubled times as to why our judicial system exists," Rosenbaum added.

According to Savit, there are now several possibilities for what could come next: The case could be sent back down to the district court; it could brought before the full Sixth Circuit, rather than simply stay with the panel decision; it could be sent up to the U.S. Supreme Court; or it could be settled.

"It's our hope in the city of Detroit that the parties can come together and work out a way to make sure that every child in Michigan is given the opportunity to learn how to read and write including in Detroit," Savit says.

"Litigation could take years and this is urgent," he adds. "There are kids in the classroom that deserve better."