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Detroit literacy lawsuit ends without a ‘right to read’ precedent. Advocates say they’ll keep fighting.

Attorneys behind a new federal civil rights lawsuit meet with Osborn High School college advisor Andrea Jackson and student Jamarria Hall.

Public Counsel

The Detroit literacy lawsuit, a four-year legal battle that sought to establish a constitutional right to literacy for all students, is officially over.

When the seven student plaintiffs in the case agreed to a settlement with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month, they also agreed to drop their complaint that the state had denied them a basic education. That ended the lawsuit, according to all 16 active judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who voted unanimously to dismiss the case on Wednesday.

A lawyer for the Republican-controlled state legislature had argued that the case should continue because two of the defendants, Republicans on the state board of education, didn’t sign the settlement.

With the case closed, the outcome of the lawsuit Gary B. v. Whitmer is clear:

  • The settlement stands. It includes roughly $40,000 for each of the seven students, $2.7 million for the Detroit Public Schools District, and a promise from Whitmer to pursue legislation that would bring an additional $94 million to the district.
  • There is still no legal precedent for a constitutional right to literacy. In other words, federal judges in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, are not bound to recognize the right to read in future cases. When the Sixth Circuit decided to review the case, it vacated the court’s April 23 opinion, written by Judge Eric Clay, that a right to read is implicitly guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
  • Still, Clay’s opinion will likely be cited in other cases that seek to establish a federal right to read.

“There’s no precedent,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the Detroit students’ attorney, of the right to read.

But he added:

“Judge Clay’s words are going to live forever. Judges across the country will look to this opinion for its judgement and its wisdom and its understanding of how to address systemic racism.”

Other lawsuits, including one in Rhode Island, are already seeking to expand students’ constitutional rights. Rosenbaum said he is in contact with students in other states about filing similar lawsuits over the poor condition of their schools.

The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by seven students in Detroit schools. They alleged that they had no real chance to get an education because of the poor condition of their school buildings, the lack of textbooks and other learning materials available, and their teachers’ lack of qualifications.

The suit argued that their schools were “schools in name only” and laid the blame with the state of Michigan, which controlled the city’s schools for much of the last two decades.

After a federal judge tossed the lawsuit in 2018, saying there is no federal right to literacy, plaintiffs appealed. Their approach seemed to pay off in April, when a three-judge panel ruled, for the first time in U.S. history, that the Constitution guarantees a minimum level of education for every citizen. That ruling prompted the students and Whitmer, a Democrat, to settle the lawsuit, but it also brought a challenge from the GOP-controlled state legislature.

At the legislature’s request, the Sixth Circuit agreed to undertake a rare review of the case by all 16 active judges on the court, a move that immediately undercut the legal force of the precedent that advocates had celebrated just weeks before.

But with the plaintiffs no longer seeking to sue, the case was effectively over, and review went no further.

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