Sixth Circuit: Access to Literacy a Fundamental Constitutional Right

In a landmark ruling, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that students have a constitutional right to a “basic minimum education,” meaning access to a foundational level of literacy. Gary B. v Whitmer, Case No. 18-1855/1871 (CA 6, 2020). For the first time, a court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires the State to provide an education with quality standards.

Since the 1990s, the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has been subject to State control through variations of an emergency manager system and assumed responsibility for financial and educational decision-making. In 2011, the State authorized the emergency manager to “solely” exercise all responsibilities affecting the school district.

Background of the Case

Seven DPS students sued the State, alleging that several Michigan State officials were responsible for deplorable school con­ditions that deprived them of a basic minimum education, violating their substantive due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The students claimed that they could not learn due to teacher shortages, unqualified teachers, extreme classroom temperatures, pest infesta­tions, contaminated drinking water, and insufficient or unusable school books and supplies. They alleged that illiteracy was the norm and that proficiency rates in nearly all State-administered subject areas hovered around zero percent. The students requested that the court order the State to improve school conditions by implementing evidence-based programs for literacy instruction and by providing compensatory and remedial education for the individually-named students.

While the federal district court found the State officials were proper parties to sue, it dismissed the lawsuit, rejecting the argu­ment that access to literacy is a fundamental constitutional right. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit recognized access to literacy as fundamental and reversed the dismissal. The Sixth Circuit did not award the stu­dents their requested relief, but ordered the lawsuit to proceed at the lower court level.

Sixth Circuit’s Decision

The Sixth Circuit specifically examined the U.S. Constitution’s “due process” clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, with­out due process of law. The students asserted that they were deprived of a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, meaning one that provides “access to literacy.” Although the Consti­tution does not contain the words “access to literacy,” the Sixth Circuit reasoned that substantive due process extends to rights deemed “fundamental” under a two-pronged analysis established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In determining whether a right is “fundamental,” the court first considers whether the asserted right is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” or whether the right would have been recognized as pro­tected at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was rat­ified in 1868. The Sixth Circuit found that the first prong was satisfied because State-sponsored education has existed throughout the nation’s history and citizens expect a basic public education as a matter of right.

The court also analyzed whether the asserted right is “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sac­rificed.” In equating a basic minimum education with one that plausibly provides access to literacy, the Sixth Circuit determined that “access to literacy” is necessary to unlock other rights including voting, completing taxes, accessing the legal system, and jury duty. While acknowledging that not every child has the same op­portunities, the Sixth Circuit found that the Fourteenth Amendment does not permit the State to “foreclose all opportunity and deny a child literacy without regard to her potential.” Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit ruled that “access to literacy” met both standards to be deemed a fundamental right under the due process framework. The Fourteenth Amendment, therefore, may provide a remedy to students “relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy.”

Although the State returned control over DPS to local officials before this lawsuit was filed, the Sixth Circuit rejected the State’s argument that this lawsuit is moot, in part because the State has been closely in­volved in DPS operations (and may have to intervene again in the future). The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that “the State, by virtue of its supervisory authority over all public education in Michigan, has a responsibil­ity that each school it oversees at least provides access to literacy.” Local school boards, while delegated signif­icant management responsibilities, remain under the ultimate control of the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent, and the Governor.

What Is Next?

This decision not only creates a new constitutional right for students but also establishes an educational standard for schools. Although it does not impose an immediate obligation on the State, once the case is re­manded to the lower court, that court may impose damages or other relief. It also remains possible that the State will appeal. Because the Sixth Circuit’s deci­sion is unprecedented, it is unclear how this will progress and what effects this may have on schools. We will continue to update you on any developments.