Do students at poorly performing schools have a constitutional right to a better education?
On Friday, a Federal District Court judge in Michigan decided that they did not when he dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by students at troubled schools in Detroit.
The suit, filed in September 2016, argued that students at some of the city’s most underperforming schools — serving mostly racial minorities — had been denied “access to literacy” because of underfunding, mismanagement and discrimination.
The complaint described schools that were overcrowded with students but lacking in teachers; courses without basic resources like books and pencils; and classrooms that were bitingly cold in the winter, stiflingly hot in the summer and infested with rats and insects.
Conditions like those, the lawsuit said, contributed to dismal test scores and left students woefully underprepared for life after high school.
“The abysmal conditions and appalling outcomes in plaintiffs’ schools are unprecedented,” the complaint said. “And they would be unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations.”
.. Judge Stephen J. Murphy III said that “access to literacy” — which he also referred to as a “minimally adequate education” — was not a fundamental right. And he said the lawsuit had failed to show that the state had practiced overt racial discrimination.
But he conceded that the conditions at some Detroit schools were “nothing short of devastating.”
.. “Historically, access to literacy has been a tool to subordinate certain groups and certain communities and to keep those communities down,” he said.
.. A dilapidated history book at Osborn High School with a publication date of 1998, in photographs provided by a law firm.
.. He also agreed that giving students the opportunity to learn to read was “of incalculable importance,” adding that some level of literacy was necessary for voting, applying for a job and securing a place to live.
.. “But those points do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right,” he said.
.. Paul Tractenberg, an expert in education and constitutional law and a professor emeritus at Rutgers Law School, said lawsuits like this one are typically filed — and have a better chance of success — in state-level courts.
“In theory, it would be a great breakthrough to have the federal courts recognize education as a fundamental right,” he said. “But I see no chance of that happening in my lifetime.”