Advocates have long fought for children in underserved communities to have the same educational opportunities as their more affluent peers. A new ruling in a federal appeals court could be the first step toward that goal.
NBC News reports that Sixth Court District Judge Eric Clay ruled that children have the right to a basic education. In 2016, a group of students in Detroit filed a suit against the state of Michigan outlining alarming conditions in their schools, citing textbooks that were out of date, instances of students actually having to teach their classes due to lack of teachers, and infrastructure issues such as sewage leaking from the bathroom into the hallways. The students argued that this was the responsibility of the state as it controlled the school district for the two decades prior to the lawsuit. They also pointed out how certain Michigan policies only contributed to worsening these conditions.
A trial court found that while the conditions of these schools were horrific, the constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to an education, and the case was thrown out. The case was then taken to an appeals court where two of the three judges ruled otherwise.
From NBC News:
“Every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning that access to literacy is necessary to access our political process,” Clay wrote in his majority opinion with Judge Jane Stranch, adding that “the unique role of public education as a source of opportunity separate from the means of a child’s parents creates a heightened social burden to provide at least a minimal education. Thus, the exclusion of a child from a meaningful education by no fault of her own should be viewed as especially suspect.”
The third judge on the panel, Eric Murphy, wrote in his dissent that while providing basic education is a noble policy goal, it’s not guaranteed by the Constitution.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could decide to take the case to the Supreme Court if she wishes to challenge the ruling. The Governor’s spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis says that she is still reviewing the case. Since education isn’t a constitutional right, the ruling is more symbolic than anything and further litigation will be required to figure out how it could be implemented. If Whitmer decides to take the case to the Supreme Court it’s unlikely that the conservative majority would uphold the decision.
Still, education advocates across the country find the ruling to be encouraging. Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who has a focus on educational rights, has been watching the case closely. “Advocates and scholars have been theorizing the possibility of a decision like this for decades. To see it in print is overwhelming. If replicated, this ruling could raise the level of education for disadvantaged students across the nation.” Black told NBC News.