Detroit Students Are Making a Federal Case Out of What They Say Was an Education So Poor, It Violated Their Constitutional Rights

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An eighth-grader teaching his fellow students math for a month when the teacher quit. Third- and fourth-grade materials in high school classes. Playgrounds covered with broken glass and burst pipes in schoolrooms.

These are some of the wretched conditions plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit charge they faced while being educated in Detroit’s public schools. They’re placing blame on the state of Michigan in a complaint experts say could be an explosive gamechanger in how the right to an education is viewed in this nation, NBC News reports.

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As NBC reports, the two sides basically agree that conditions in Detroit were ratchet, but the state contends that while educational conditions were “serious” in Detroit, they didn’t rise to the level of violating students’ constitutional rights, as the lawsuit claims.

Thus, the plaintiffs’ appeal, currently being heard in the federal courts.

It’s a difficult case (as NBC notes, nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is a right to an education listed). But for the young people and their advocates, who feel students’ ability to function as viable citizens was taken away by the very nature of the subpar education they received, this case, first filed in 2016, is everything.

One of the plaintiffs is Jamarria Hall, a 19-year-old who graduated from Detroit’s Osborn High School and now finds himself struggling to get through the basics at a community college in Florida.

Hall told NBC high school was a “waste of time,” during which 11th- and 12th-graders were taught from materials meant for third- and fourth-graders.

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“It feels like I’ve lost an opportunity or lost four years of my life,” Hall told the news network, citing a lack of books at the school, bars on school windows and leaking ceilings. “It’s really despicable for me to live in America and to have a chance at the American dream and to be able to live in a society where everybody should have the same opportunity and to know that it’s not happening for me.”

Former Detroit teacher Renee Schenkman told NBC that due to lack of adequate teaching materials at the charter school where she once taught, she “had to Google” to figure out how to teach phonics to her students.

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“It’s a terrible feeling,” Schenkman said. “I started teaching because I care so much about kids and education, and to feel like I had none of the tools to do that, none of the support to do that, and to be faced with kids who are very eager to be there and to be part of the class, and to see that they’re falling so far behind, that was the hardest thing.”

The Detroit case, as well as a similar case filed last year on behalf of Rhode Island students regarding their lack of a civics education, could be a gamechanger in terms of impacting how states fund their schools.

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As Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina with a specialty in education rights, told NBC:

The cases, now snaking their way through the federal courts, could yield “enormous, almost earth-shattering change in terms of educational funding and educational opportunity.”

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