What to do when a school is infested with vermin, when textbooks are outdated, when students can’t even read? Perhaps the answer is sue the government.
That’s what seven students in Detroit have done. Their class-action suit filed against the state of Michigan asserts that education is a basic right, and that they have been denied it.
Usually, such education-equity cases wend their way through state courts, as all 50 state constitutions mandate public-education systems, while the country’s guiding document doesn’t even include the word education. But this case, Gary B. v. Snyder, was filed in federal court, and thus seeks to invoke the Constitution. And as of this week, it’s headed to the federal appeals court in Cincinnati.
The lawyers filing the suit—from the pro bono Los Angeles firm Public Counsel—contend that the students (who attend five of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools) are receiving an education so inferior and underfunded that it’s as if they’re not attending school at all. The 100-page-plus complaint alleges that the state of Michigan (which has overseen Detroit’s public schools for nearly two decades) is depriving these children—97 percent of whom are students of color—of their constitutional rights to liberty and nondiscrimination by denying them access to basic literacy. Almost all the students at these schools perform well below grade level in reading and writing, and, the suit argues, those skills are necessary to function properly in society. It’s the first case to argue that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to become literate (and thus to be educated) because other rights in the Constitution necessarily require the ability to read.