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Federal Appeals Court Rules that Detroit Children Have a Right to Education

April 27, 2020

In a 2-1 ruling in Gary B. v. Snyder, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled April 23 that children have a constitutional right to a basic minimum education. 

"[We agree with Plaintiffs'] central theory: that they have been denied a basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy," Sixth Circuit Court Judge Eric Clay wrote in his opinion supporting the plaintiffs. "A review of the Supreme Court's education cases, and an application of their principles to our substantive due process framework, demonstrates that we should recognize a basic minimum education to be a fundamental right. Furthermore, under this circuit's precedents, Defendants are proper parties to sue in this case. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the district court's order, and remand this case for further proceedings."

Gary B. v. Snyder was filed against former Gov. Rick Snyder, '82, and other Michigan state officials in September 2016 on behalf of Detroit schoolchildren, who attend five of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Three are public schools and two are charter schools. The suit argues that the schools named "are schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions, and lacking the most basic educational opportunities that children elsewhere in Michigan—and throughout the nation—take for granted. Plaintiffs sit in classrooms where not even the pretense of education takes place, in schools that are functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy."

Evan H. Caminker, the Branch Rickey Collegiate Professor of Law and former dean of Michigan Law, is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. He noted that the Sixth Circuit's decision is a groundbreaking legal ruling, "being the first to recognize a right of access to literacy, and an affirmative right as well."

A constitutional lawyer, Caminker also said that "the court's reasoning largely tracks similar decisions expanding liberties―for example, by employing originalist reasoning based on the almost-universal state provision of public education when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, and by recognizing that some minimum level of literacy is necessary to exercise fundamental political rights (think about recent arguments that the Second Amendment encompasses the right to access gun stores and shooting ranges as prerequisites to the core right of self-defense). While constitutional rights typically limit government action, the Supreme Court has occasionally recognized other fundamental rights that similarly require government to provide services, such as the right to vote (requiring voting booths and the like) and the right to marry (requiring government licensing). At the same time, the Sixth Circuit carefully explains how the state can remedy its shortcomings in targeted and flexible ways, dispelling any concern than the decision will impose cookie-cutter reforms across the state let along the nation."

Caminker hopes the lawsuit will lead to a larger political conversation and commitment prompting meaningful changes in the way that public education is provided, especially in major urban areas. "But for the moment, Detroit and school districts like it are so far below meeting the requirements for access to literacy," he said. "We're not asking for everybody to have a Cadillac. We're asking for everyone to have access to more than a Flintstones' car. As the court noted here, we allege that 'a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy.' Hopefully this legal ruling will remedy such an embarrassment."

Read more about Gary B. Snyder and Detroit schools in the spring 2017 Law Quadrangle.

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