U.S. Upholds Constitutional Right to Literacy

Judge's gavel and books. 3d illustration

The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that all U.S. students have a right to a basic minimum education under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and that literacy is essential to the exercising of other basic rights in response to an appeal filed in 2018 on behalf of Detroit public school students.

In the opinion, the Sixth Court of Appeals cited decisions by the Supreme Court underscoring “the critical importance of education”:

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

The Court added: that “a basic minimum education has a longstanding presence in our history and tradition, and is essential to our concept of ordered liberty.”

The original class action lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder, was first-of-its-kind in the nation, filed in 2016 to hold Michigan state officials accountable for denying children their constitutional right to literacy. 

The lawsuit stated: “Decades of State disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to the Detroit schools have denied Plaintiff schoolchildren access to the most basic building block of education: literacy. Literacy is fundamental to participation in public and private life and is the core component of the American tradition of education. But by its actions and inactions, the State of Michigan’s systemic, persistent, and deliberate failure to deliver instruction and tools essential for access to literacy in Plaintiffs’ schools, which serve almost exclusively low-income children of color, deprives students of even a fighting chance.”

As part of the Detroit public school system the plaintiffs, who came from a range of public schools including charter schools, faced numerous challenges including a shortage of qualified teachers, lack of textbooks, and classroom conditions that were unsafe and not conducive to learning. The lawsuit demanded that the state remedy this by ensuring students receive evidence-based literacy instruction at the elementary and secondary level, a stable, supported, and appropriately trained teaching staff, basic instructional materials and safe school conditions that do not interfere with students’ learning.

More information about the lawsuit can be found here.

See Children’s Rights to Read Pledge

See editorial: Reading Your Rights

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