Settlement reached in Detroit right-to-literacy case

UPDATE: May 14, 2020: Late Wednesday night, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the plaintiffs in the Gary B. v. Whitmer right-to-literacy case alerted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that they have reached a settlement in the case “that resolves all of plaintiffs’ claims against all defendants, and thus fully resolves this matter.”

Last week, the state legislature intervened in the case, asking for a full Sixth Circuit review of the April 23 decision by a three-judge panel. In that 2-1 decision, the judges declared students have a right to a basic minimum education under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and that literacy is necessary to exercise one’s constitutional rights. 

In the filing, the state Senate and House called the decision a “breathtaking attack on federalism” and wrote, “The financial implications of the panel’s decision to the State of Michigan — and the extraordinary breadth of the panel’s holding — warrant en banc review.” The Detroit Public Schools Community District, educational advocacy groups and the plaintiffs in the case had urged the governor to settle the case

Dive Brief:

  • Students have a right to a basic minimum education under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, and literacy is an essential part of exercising other fundamental rights, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Thursday.
  • “Most significantly, every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning access to literacy is necessary to access our political process,” the court ruled.
  • The response is the latest development in Gary B. v. Snyder, a Michigan case filed on behalf of Detroit students who said they were deprived an education by attending low-performing schools. Originally filed against former Gov. Richard Snyder, the case now names Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as the defendant.

Dive Insight:

“The Court in Cincinnati took a bold step today in recognizing a fundamental constitutional right of access to literacy and in doing so has given hope to the school children in Detroit who were so neglected for so long,” Carter Phillips, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

The case is one of two in federal court arguing that for almost half a century, the U.S. Supreme Court has left unresolved the question of whether education is a Constitutional right. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, a school funding case, the justices referred to the “basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process.”

In December, a federal judge heard oral arguments in Cook v. Raimondo, a Rhode Island class action lawsuit in which the plaintiffs — ranging from a toddler born last year to recent high school graduates — argue the state is not providing an education that adequately prepares students to participate as informed citizens in civic life.

The appellate court on Thursday also responded to that issue. “In short, without the literacy provided by a basic minimum education, it is impossible to participate in our democracy,” they wrote. 

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