Do Students Have A Constitutional Right To Literacy?

New lawsuit claims Detroit school children are getting “an education” in name only.

Jake Neher/WDET

Every student in Michigan is guaranteed the right to a “free public education.” The state constitution says “every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin.”

But does the United States Constitution give students a right to literacy? That’s what a federal civil rights lawsuit argues.

The suit was filed on behalf of a 16-year-old public school student on Detroit’s East Side. He argues many of his friends can’t read – not because they’re not smart – but because the system has failed them.

Richard Primus, professor of law and a constitutional law expert at University of Michigan, joins Detroit Today to give his take on the lawsuit and its chances in court.

“The argument that this lawsuit is making is, this thing that the state is providing for these children is not an education at all,” says Primus. “And if it’s not an education at all then these students are being treated unequally in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”

He says the lawsuit cites deplorable conditions in Detroit public school buildings, saying that they create an environment that is not conducive to learning.

“(The attorneys filing the lawsuit) are saying these are schools in name only,” Primus continues. “They’re buildings where kids go and don’t learn, not for any reason that’s the kids’ fault, but the buildings are themselves in terrible repair, they don’t have adequate drinking water, they don’t have adequate heating and cooling, mature adults probably couldn’t concentrate… and the educational outcomes are shocking. Proficiency levels for the students in these schools over and over and over again are below ten percent.”

Primus says he thinks the lawsuit has a reasonable chance of succeeding.

“The legal arguments are quite plausible and the factual circumstances are pretty outrageous,” he says. “So, I think there’s a real case here.”

To hear the full conversation, click on the audio player above.



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