LA public firm representing Detroit suit on literacy as a constitutional right

By Kerry Goff | Dec 8, 2016

LOS ANGELES – A lawsuit filed on Sept. 13, by Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the nation's largest public interest law firm, is representing seven Detroit school children over the right to literacy.

LOS ANGELES – A lawsuit filed on Sept. 13, by Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the nation's largest public interest law firm, is representing seven Detroit school children over the right to literacy.

Michigan lawyers are fighting the suit, claiming there is no constitutional protection to literacy.

According to an Oct. 11 article by The Detroit News, the suit alleges that Michigan has denied children access to the basics of education, focusing specifically on literacy.


“U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. says Michigan has not properly invested in Detroit’s schoolchildren but declined to tell The Detroit News whether he thinks literacy is a federal right,” the Oct. 11 article said.

Despite King’s ability to address whether literacy is a federal right, he did explain that the state has not made appropriate efforts to invest in education.

“It is clear that the state over the years has not made any of the kind of investment and commitment to the kids of Detroit that’s needed,” King said in an Oct. 11 interview with The Detroit News. “And that is our responsibility across levels of government — local, state and federal. And the future of our economy and our democracy depend on that.”

Richard Primus, a constitutional law expert and professor at University of Michigan Law School, explained that this suit brings attention to how proper education is neglected in lower-income and poverty-stricken areas.

“If the allegations are true — rodent-infested classrooms, no textbooks in classes, classrooms without teachers — Primus said it’s hard to understand how the schools could be providing adequate education,” The Detroit News article said.

State lawyers had a deadline of Nov. 17 to respond to the suit, and their response was to request that U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III dismiss the case, according to a Nov. 21 Detroit Free Press article.

"The United States Supreme Court and Michigan courts recognize the importance of literacy," state lawyers said in their written response. "But as important as literacy may be, the United States Supreme Court has unambiguously rejected the claim that public education is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution."

The Detroit Free Press article explained that even if the Constitution makes no mention of literacy, the suit argues that literacy is a right because it hinders access to other constitutionally protected rights.

“Citizens cannot access other constitutionally protected activities such as casting an informed vote, or serving on juries or in the military,” the article said. “The suit targeted the state because it has appointed emergency managers to run the Detroit Public Schools in recent years.” 

According to the Detroit Free Press, the suit is being watched closely by education experts around the country to see if the courts are ready to establish a right to literacy. 

“The federal courts have historically been reluctant to wade into school funding issues, focusing instead on safeguarding students from civil rights violations such as segregation and discrimination,” the Nov. 21 article said. 

Kathryn Eidmann, one of the lawyers representing the Detroit children in the lawsuit, argues that the state is avoiding the real issues listed in the complaint. 

"The response completely fails to engage with the 136-page complaint’s specific and detailed allegations documenting the extreme and indefensible conditions that deny children access to literacy in Detroit schools: classrooms without books or teachers, sweltering and freezing temperatures, vermin infestations, and buildings that are literally falling apart," Eidmann said. 

The state argues that the lawyers invested in the lawsuit are ignoring additional factors that may contribute to illiteracy, such as poverty, medical issues and lack of parental guidance, among other environmental and intellectual limitations, according to the Detroit Free press article. 

The lawyers hired by the state are preparing to fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Detroit Free Press explained. 

"Contrary to plaintiffs’ assertions, the 'state' never ran any of the schools, although emergency managers have been appointed to supplant local authority, where necessary," the lawyers said in their written statement.

Eidmann disagreed with the state’s alleged shirking of their responsibilities to their citizens.

"The state’s claim that it bears no responsibility for these shocking educational deprivations is disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising, in light of the state’s long history of abdicating of its responsibility to ensure that all Michigan children receive a decent education and an equal shot at success," Eidmann said.


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