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Lawsuit to Affirm Detroit Students' Constitutional Right to Literacy Heard Before Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals


More than 100 students, parents, teachers, and community members took two buses from Detroit to be present at the court hearing in support of the lawsuit.

Cincinnati, OH – As more than 100 Detroit parents, teachers, students and community members rallied on the steps of the courthouse, lawyers for Detroit area schoolchildren today argued before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that the opportunity to literacy is a right guaranteed to school age children under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Unlike other students in Michigan, the Detroit area schoolchildren do not have access to the most fundamental building block of an education: literacy.

“We were extremely satisfied by the questions asked today by the court, and their knowledge and sensitivity of the record of the case,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Directing Attorney with Public Counsel. “Particularly striking was the inability of the state to answer the most basic questions about when they were in control of the district and for how long. The state was unable to provide any justification for putting children in buildings that did not have capacity to provide students with even the most basic tools to equip them with literacy – no matter how much students wanted to learn nor how hard they tried.”

The class action lawsuit, Gary B v. Snyder / Gary B. Whitmer, filed in 2016 by Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono organization and Sidley Austin LLP on behalf of seven students from five Detroit school schools, alleges that the State of Michigan has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide a basic education to all its children. The lawsuit documents pervasive, shock-the-conscience conditions in Detroit classrooms – including lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks and instructional materials, buildings plagued by vermin, and extreme temperature conditions.

The State of Michigan argues that children at such schools suffer no denial of equal opportunity under the Constitution even though the state’s own data shows that they consistently and significantly fare much worse than state averages on proficiency tests. The federal district court judge who heard the case last year called the conditions “deplorable” and “devastating,” and held the State responsible. However, in his July 2018 ruling, he declined to find a right to literacy, and the plaintiffs immediately appealed the decision.

The case was a major issue during Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Then, candidate Gretchen Whitmer pledged to support Detroit students in their lawsuit saying, “I believe every child in this state has a constitutional right to literacy.” However, once the case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit, Governor Whitmer reversed course and argued that the State was not responsible for the results of its operation of Detroit schools and took “no position” as to whether a right exists. Michigan’s  new Attorney General, Dana Nessel, broke from the governor, created “a wall” in her office and filed papers with the court seeking to submit an amicus on behalf of the people of Michigan on all issues.

Lawyers were joined by more than 100 students, parents, teachers, and community members who made the nearly eight-hour drive from Detroit to be present at the court hearing in support of the lawsuit.

For more information on Gary B v. Snyder, please visit https://www.detroit-accesstoliteracy.org/.

Read the full press release here.

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