Why are leading educators, lawyers, and scholars filing briefs this week asking the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to listen to children in the Detroit public schools? A district court declined to proceed with the school children’s complaint that the Detroit public schools deprive students — 97 percent of whom are students of color — of any real chance for basic literacy while also exposing them to unsanitary and unsafe conditions. The school system has the lowest literacy rate of any major school district in the nation, a shortage of qualified teachers, and teaching materials that are both out-of-date and too few to serve the students. The schools do not even offer a core curriculum. Instead, the schools are infested with rodents and other pests. Extreme temperatures require early-bird dismissals and school closings.
The experience of Detroit public school students, in these unsafe and failing schools, is at odds with the genuine educational opportunities offered in the public schools of Detroit’s suburbs and elsewhere in Michigan. The State of Michigan has overseen the Detroit schools for nearly two decades. The City of Detroit, Detroit superintendent of schools, and Board of Education join in efforts by myself and others to reverse the district court’s ruling and get federal judicial protection for the Detroit school children.
Michigan convinced the district court to dismiss the complaint even though assertions in a complaint are treated as true at this stage. The only question now is whether there is a potential legal claim, assuming the evidentiary claims are true. The State of Michigan does not dispute that the Detroit schoolchildren are not obtaining basic literacy skills; instead, it blames the students and their families. In fact, the federal District Court judge acknowledged that the state officials are the ones responsible for the “deplorable conditions.” The judge also recognized that literacy is of “incalculable importance” but worried that there is no direct precedent to support the Detroit schoolchildren’s claims. In short, the District Court ruled that the students’ right to an education is not protected by the Constitution.
Actually, the United States Supreme Court laid the path for the students’ claims, more than 60 years ago, in the unanimous and internationally heralded decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court not only rejected state racial segregation in public schools; it also announced:
“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. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
These words become only more compelling in the digital age, when jobs, news, political participation, and even social life depend on people’s literacy in the written word and other basic skills. No wonder the Supreme Court reasoned more recently:
“The American people have always regarded education and [the] acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance. We have recognized the public schools as . . . the primary vehicle for transmitting the values on which our society rests. . . . In sum, education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society.”
When a nation has elected — as every state in this nation has — to compel students to attend schools and to provide public schools, students in return have a right to a minimally adequate education. And when some students receive it and others do not, our constitutional commitment to equal protection is denied.
There are practical concerns. Failing to educate children not only places them at a terrible disadvantage. It also harms their families and communities. It exacerbates the risk that they will lack jobs, turn to crime, or rely on public assistance to survive, and it deprives the larger society of their talents and contributions. These are policy matters, but they are also relevant to the definition of legal obligations.
The law supplies sufficient grounds for the courts to act. When a state provides genuine education opportunities for some while confining others in failing, unsafe schools lacking adequate teachers and materials, it violates the guarantees of the Constitution. That is why I and so many others are joining this week to support the Detroit students seeking help from the federal appellate court.
Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard University, is the author of “In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark.”