University of Michigan School of Education helps lead efforts to ensure the Right to Literacy for all children

April 25, 2020

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday, April 23, that the U.S. Constitution includes a right to "a basic minimum education," which a suit claimed the state of Michigan denied to a group of Detroit Public School students. This is the first time a court has asserted a federal right to education.

Students in very low performing schools in Detroit brought the case against then-governor Rick Snyder, citing the absence of qualified teachers, crumbling facilities, and insufficient materials, which prevented students from accessing literacy. 

Elizabeth Birr Moje, Dean of the School of Education and George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education, was the author on an Amicus Brief in support of the plaintiffs, signed by 68 leading scholars, entities, and university administrators that focus on teacher education, educational policy, assessment, and literacy throughout the United States. 

Filed in 2018, the Amicus Brief provided the court with additional context necessary to fully understand the state of education for the children and youth in the city of Detroit and the critical importance of literacy to their futures: “Without basic literacy skills, these children will also be unable to complete the complex literacy tasks necessary to provide for themselves and their families and will instead be consigned to low future earnings and a lack of voice in our society. Amici believe that access to meaningful literacy instruction is necessary not only for active citizenship and future work, but also to model for Detroit’s youth the core democratic values of our society—their right to liberty and a commitment to the common good of all of society’s members.”

In the brief, Moje shared data indicating that only 4% of the students in Detroit scored at or above proficient in fourth-grade reading and 7% in eighth-grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. She presented research on the poverty rates in Detroit as well as the conditions in Detroit schools, including unsafe facilities and a dearth of educational materials, as well as a lack of qualified educators. 

Moje provided evidence of the effects of poor literacy in people’s lives, demonstrating why denying access to literacy is untenable in our society. She concluded, “If not compelled to make the necessary investments in expertise, resources, and systems immediately, then there is little hope for the children and youth who remain tied to Detroit schools to succeed academically or in life.”

The April 23 decision is a reversal of a lower court ruling that had dismissed the case. "While the Supreme Court has repeatedly discussed this issue, it has never decided it, and the question of whether such a right exists remains open today," the court ruled, adding that after applying the Supreme Court's rulings from other cases, "we recognize that the Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education."

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Dean, School of Education; George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education; Arthur F Thurnau Professor; Faculty Associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research

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