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Appeals court: Detroit students have a right to literacy

April 24, 2020 GMT

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. (AP) — Students at underperforming Detroit public schools have a constitutional right to literacy, a federal appeals court said Thursday in reviving a lawsuit against the state of Michigan.

The court sent the case back to a federal judge in Detroit who had dismissed a lawsuit against state officials. The 2016 lawsuit alleged that the city’s public schools were in “slum-like conditions” and “functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.”

A basic minimum education should be recognized as a fundamental right, said judges Eric Clay and Jane Stranch in a 2-1 decision from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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The ruling came on the same day that groups announced a $23 million effort to provide computer tablets and high-speed internet to 51,000 students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The lawsuit had named Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was elected in 2018 and replaced Snyder as a defendant.

“The court in Cincinnati took a bold step today in recognizing a fundamental constitutional right of access to literacy and in doing so has given hope to the school children in Detroit who were so neglected for so long,” said Carter Phillips, a co-counsel with Los Angeles-based Public Counsel who represents the students named in the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III had dismissed it in 2018, asserting the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee a fundamental right to literacy.

In a dissent, appeals court Judge Eric Murphy took a similar position Thursday.

“If I sat in the state Legislature or on the local school board, I would work diligently to investigate and remedy the serious problems that the plaintiffs assert,” Eric Murphy said.

But the constitution, he added, doesn’t give courts “roving power to redress every social and economic ill.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was pleased with the majority decision.

“Literacy is something every child should have a fair chance to attain. We hope instead of filing another appeal, the parties sit down and focus on how to make literacy available to every child in Michigan,” Duggan said.

Whitmer’s office said it was reviewing the opinion. State attorneys had argued that the state doesn’t control Detroit schools and can’t be sued, although the district was run for years by managers appointed by governors. It’s not known if the state will ask the full 6th Circuit to take a fresh look at the case.

“The governor has a strong record on education and has always believed we have a responsibility to teach every child to read,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

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