A new federal lawsuit has been filed alleging that the State of Michigan has denied Detroit's schoolchildren the constitutional "right to literacy."
The lawsuit is largely premised on the existence of a fundamental liberty interest in literacy for purposes of 14th Amendment equal protection and substantive due process. The plaintiffs assert that the State of Michigan is denying their constitutional rights by failing to ensure that they learn to read and by declining to bring about positive educational outcomes in the Detroit schools.
There is no fundamental right to learn to read. This issue was decided by the United States Supreme Court in a case called San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).
The plaintiffs rely heavily on Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State of Texas could not deny enrollment in public schools for undocumented children not legally admitted to the country. True, the Plyler Court emphasized the great importance of public education and "recognized 'the public schools as a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government.'" Id. at 221 (citation omitted). But the relief sought in the instant lawsuit is markedly different from that sought in Plyler.
It's one thing for the federal courts to declare that a state cannot maintain racially segregated schools or refuse to educate undocumented children. It is quite another thing for the federal courts to order the implementation of a complex system of structural changes designed to overhaul the method of teaching reading, revise the curriculum, provide particularized special services, and increase the administration of student and teacher assessments and evaluations. Yet this is exactly what the plaintiffs are requesting here.
Federal courts have historically refused to order the implementation of specific programs like this. Such particulars of school management are left to state and local authorities. Because "judges are not well suited to act as school administrators," the federal courts tend to avoid becoming embroiled in matters of instructional oversight and management. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 848-849 (Breyer, J., dissenting). Instead, the role of the courts is generally limited to considering whether school officials' implementation of policies and programs is consistent with governing constitutional principles. See Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, 299 (1955).
Yes, the complaint in this case raises important issues and makes some very good points. Among other things, it shines the light on the deplorable conditions existing in many of Detroit's schools. However, I don't give the plaintiffs very good odds of success.
Remember that foundation-funded groups, like the plaintiffs' lead law firm Public Counsel, have money and influence. They can recruit well known co-counsel, hold fancy press conferences, and spend money to spin their legal arguments as novel and revolutionary. It's all about optics. In truth, many very similar claims have already been raised in the federal civil-rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the sitting Detroit Public Schools school board in exile — just using different plaintiffs. Similar claims were also raised and rejected in previous state-court litigation. There's really nothing novel about Public Counsel's lawsuit.
And let's not overlook the fact that the plaintiffs' complaint seems to propose more standardized reading assessments for children in lower grades (twice annually), as well as increased teacher evaluations. Given that Public Counsel lists the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation as one of its supporters, works cooperatively with the California Charter Schools Association to provide legal assistance for charter developers, and has opposed job protections for California public school teachers, I wonder about the true motivations underlying this suit. Do the plaintiffs' lawyers have an interest in portraying Detroit's traditional public schools as "failing"? I sure hope not. But I think it's worth asking this question before immediately jumping on their bandwagon.