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Detroit Students to Appeal Decision Denying Right of Access to Literacy and a Basic Education

(L - R) Andrea Jackson, counselor and parent; Jamarria Hall, student; Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law; Pro Bono attorney Michael Kelley, partner at Sidley Austin LLP

July 2, 2018

On Friday, A U.S. District Court in Detroit granted the State of Michigan’s Motion to Dismiss in Gary B. v. Snyder, a class action lawsuit seeking to ensure that Detroit public school students have access to the most fundamental building block of a basic education: literacy. The students and their families will appeal the ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Copy of the Motion to Dismiss Decision, AVAILABLE HERE

The litigation documents the reasons Detroit has the lowest literacy rate of any major school district in the nation: a shortage of qualified teachers, the absence of textbooks, the failure to offer core curricula in all schools, conditions in classrooms that make learning and teaching impossible, such as extreme temperatures necessitating school closings and early dismissals, rodent infestations and unsafe and structurally defective school facilities. The lawsuit seeks to hold the State of Michigan – the operator of Detroit schools for over a decade until just this past school year—accountable for these unconscionable circumstances. 

The district court rejected the State’s position that it could escape responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. It held that “educational responsibilities begin at the state level” and that “state actors” “effectively control the schools.” The court also recognized that the question of whether a constitutional right of access to literacy and a basic education exists is an open one, not foreclosed by decisions from any court and with support from a number of Supreme Court decisions in the area of education.

Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, one of the attorneys for the student plaintiffs, issued the following statement:

“Friday’s decision is as deeply disappointing as having to file a lawsuit in the first place to ensure that the State of Michigan denies no child the opportunity to thrive in schools worthy of their desire to learn. The court got it tragically wrong when it characterized access to literacy as a privilege, instead of a right held by all children so that they may better their circumstances and meaningfully participate in our political system. Children from affluent communities in Michigan do not attend schools in their communities lacking teachers, books and safe and sanitary conditions, and children of color and from less advantaged communities are entitled to no less. This is both a moral and a constitutional imperative.

“Historically, denial of access to literacy has been a tool of unlawful discrimination used in an attempt to stigmatize, disenfranchise, and otherwise hold back certain communities. The most telling fact in Michigan is that this remains the case today. That is why we will continue to fight for the children of Detroit to have their day in court.  Their future and the future of Detroit hang in the balance along with our nation’s commitment to equal protection of the laws.”

Carter G. Phillips of Sidley Austin LLP, also one of the attorneys for the student plaintiffs, issued the following statement:

“While we are gratified that the court found that Michigan state officials are responsible for the ‘deplorable conditions’ in the Detroit public schools and not immune from suit, that plaintiffs are properly before the court, and that ‘literacy—and the opportunity to obtain it—is of incalculable importance,’ we are disappointed that the court failed to recognize that no Supreme Court or other precedent compels the court to turn its back on the desperate plight of Detroit schoolchildren.”

The City of Detroit, international literacy associations, community groups and the Detroit Federation of Teachers have all filed briefs in support of plaintiff schoolchildren.

For more info on Gary B v. Snyder, visit http://www.detroit-accesstoliteracy.org

Copy of the Motion to Dismiss Decision, AVAILABLE HERE