Posted on November 1, 2019

How a Lawsuit over Detroit Schools Could Have an ‘Earth-Shattering’ Impact

Erin Einhorn, NBC News, October 28, 2019


What’s less certain, however, is whether Hall’s education in Detroit’s long-troubled school district was so awful, so insufficient, that it violated his constitutional rights.

That’s the question now before a federal appeals court that heard arguments last week in one of two cases that experts say could have sweeping implications for schools across the country.

The cases, now snaking their way through the federal courts, could yield “enormous, almost earth-shattering change in terms of educational funding and educational opportunity,” said Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina whose research has focused on educational rights and constitutional law.

The Detroit case was filed in 2016 on behalf of Hall and other students who attended rodent-infested, crumbling schools that lacked certified teachers and up-to-date textbooks. It argued that appalling conditions, including an eighth grader who taught math to his classmates for a month after his teacher quit, denied students a basic right to literacy.


If either case succeeds and is ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, Black said, it would establish for the first time that students have a “fundamental right” to an education that meets minimum standards of quality.


“Every school in the country would be affected,” said Michael Rebell, a Teachers College, Columbia University professor who brought the Rhode Island case. “It would mean that students in other urban areas or rural areas that think they’re getting a totally inadequate education would have a basis to go to federal court and say, ‘Our system isn’t teaching basic literacy and we have a right to it.’ There could be a lot of litigation.”

‘It was really heartbreaking’

The case heard Thursday in Cincinnati before a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals put the blame for Detroit students’ troubles on the state of Michigan. The state had taken control of Detroit’s main school district from the locally elected school board for much of the last two decades, while encouraging scores of new charter schools to open and siphon students away.

But many charter schools in the city also face alarming conditions. The suit reflects that by including students from both kinds of schools.


‘They’re creating a second-class caste system’

In the hourlong arguments of the Detroit case in federal court last week, there was little dispute about the conditions alleged in the lawsuit.

Even the attorney representing the defendants, who include Michigan’s governor and members of its elected board of education, acknowledged the schools in Detroit were unacceptable three years ago, when the suit was filed. However, Raymond Howd, the Michigan assistant attorney general, representing the state, argued that “there’s a difference between a serious problem” and one that violates students’ rights.


There is no mention of the word “education” in the Constitution, and the Supreme Court has held in the past that there is no constitutional right to education or to equally funded schools.


Martha Minow, a former dean of Harvard law school and the author of a book about the legacy of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, said the education system in Michigan violates the Constitution because some school districts in the state fail to provide even a minimal education while others, including those in affluent suburbs of Detroit, are providing a much higher quality education.

“Some people are getting an education and other people are not, and that’s discrimination,” said Minow, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Detroit students.