A federal judge has concluded that the Constitution doesn't require schools to promote students’ literacy.

Students in Detroit Are Suing the State Because They Weren't Taught to Read

What to do when a school is infested with vermin, when textbooks are outdated, when students can’t even read?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.

The case is a long shot. Late last week, the district-court judge in Detroit, Stephen J. Murphy, dismissed it. (The plaintiffs are appealing that dismissal.) Murphy essentially stated that he needed guidance from the Supreme Court if he were to weigh in on whether the students’ abysmal proficiency levels and learning conditions amount to a violation of the Constitution. He also concluded that the suit makes too many hard-to-prove causal claims. Even though Michigan subjects the predominantly black Detroit students to conditions to which it doesn’t subject, say, the predominantly white students of nearby Grosse Pointe, Murphy wrote, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that the state is treating the former group differently because of their race and thus violating the equal-protection clause. Another obstacle: The federal judiciary has grown particularly restrained on educational-rights issues in recent decades, in part because of the backlash from parents and othersopposed to integration efforts that followed the wave of school-desegregation rulings in the 1970s and ’80s.

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