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Michigan court rules against ACLU in "right to read" case

Nov 7, 2014

When students are failed by their school, who is legally responsible? 

Credit Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Is a basic education a constitutional right?

And if it is, can the courts enforce it?    

These are the questions at the heart of this case, in which the ACLU of Michigan sued Highland Park schools and the state of Michigan, saying students were not taught basic literacy skills.

The Michigan Court of Appeals says the ACLU cannot sue the state and the school district on behalf of students – even if those students were “abysmally failed.”

90% of Highland Park students failed reading, math, social studies and science tests  

Everybody agrees on this much, at least: the Highland Park school district did not ensure kids were able to read or do math at their grade level.

In fact, according to the court’s minority opinion, a majority of 4th graders tested below “proficient” on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program’s reading test. A full 87% of those 4th graders tested below “proficient” in math.

In high school, at least 90% of students failed the state’s reading, math, and writing tests. Every student failed the Social Studies and Science tests.

Many classrooms didn’t have heat, textbooks were rare, student records were basically nonexistent, and for a while a homeless man was able to live in the facilities without anyone noticing.

So the ACLU sued the state and the district on behalf of eight Highland Park kids, claiming that students have a constitutional right to a quality education.

Two of the three judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against the students.

Majority opinion: “There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Writing for the majority, Judge Kathleen Jansen says, “while there is little genuine controversy that the district defendants have abysmally failed their pupils, the mechanism to correct this failure is not through the court system…”

First off, Jansen looked at the claim that the state is constitutionally obligated to give kids a quality education.

While she finds that the executive branch is “encouraged” to provide an education, the constitution doesn’t make it mandatory.

That’s because the constitution gives the legislature, not the executive branch, the job of providing and financing free public schools.

So the state has a more supervisory, indirect role in a student’s education, and they’re fine so long as they’re providing schools with the necessary tools – which they are, the state argues, because other schools are doing just fine in the same system.

As for the district itself, Jansen says, there’s no law that expressly allows a student or their family to sue the district for failing to educate its students.

Without those parameters, the court would be overstepping its role if they told a district how, specifically, to do its jobs with regards to an individual student’s learning plan.

“Such a solution is not available through judicial intervention,” Jansen writes.

The dissent: “Education is the most important function of…government.”

In writing for the minority, Judge Shapiro says the U.S. Supreme Court found in Brown v Topeka Bd of Ed that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government.”

Therefore, he says his colleagues are essentially repealing portions of the state Constitution where it says the legislature and the local districts “shall” provide an education to students.

Shapiro says he agrees that the courts aren’t the right place to “fine-tune educational policy,” but that the courts are supposed to defend people – especially children – when the government isn’t complying with the constitutional duties.

“My colleagues offer kindly worded sympathy to the children whose future are in jeopardy through no fault of their own. But, the schoolchildren who brought this case are not requesting the Court’s sympathy. They are asking that we allow their case to be heard.”