Do Your Children Have a Right to Literacy?


Last year a lawsuit was filed on behalf of children in five of the lowest performing schools in Detroit.

The lawsuit alleges that children in Detroit have been denied the chance to even achieve literacy through the purposeful divestment and indifference displayed by the state of Michigan in various ways.  The suit asserts that education is a fundamental right, such that the denial of a basic education is presumably unconstitutional and this falls under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

So the issue is...

“Do children have a constitutional right to literacy and should states be held accountable as it relates to ensuring that right"? 

The Attorney General’s office of the state of Michigan has reportedly argued that the Supreme Court has ruled that there is no constitutional right to a good education for any citizen and that a state can’t be held responsible for ensuring that ALL of its students are literate.  That would require government oversight that would take away the democratic rights of local governments.

The state also asserts that it (the state) does not actually run school systems, local authorities do. 

In Detroit, the state has had some type of control over the city’s school district for almost 18 years (including the appointment of successive Emergency Managers).  Despite this, the state argues that these Emergency Managers are not state officials, but are considered local officials under the law.

They argue that education is extremely important, but that it is not a legal right and therefore the lawsuit should be dismissed.

On The Other Side

The lawyers for the students argue that ACCESS to literacy is a fundamental right and that “selectively” denying access to literacy to certain groups of children is “presumptively unconstitutional” and that children in Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) do not have access to the development of basic literacy skills.

They cite conditions in Detroit’s public schools (and laws passed by the state) that other school districts are not subjected to and that these conditions have been willfully ignored by the state, which has had considerable control over the school district for most of the last 18 years.

They list the following examples (and many more) in their lawsuit.

Children in the schools cited are subjected to using outdated textbooks.  They are at times required to share textbooks in groups of four or more students and are not allowed to take textbooks home. 

In one instance a school was using a history textbook from 1998, when Bill Clinton was president.  The history book itself was outdated and older than the children in the high school who were using it.

There are some classrooms in these schools where the only books, furniture, paper, pens, pencils, cleaning supplies or toilet paper they have are purchased by the teachers themselves or are donated by other schools.  (Imagine a school district donating its extra supplies to other school districts in the same state—this is not another country, but to schools in the same state)!

There are also classrooms filled with fifty or more students, which do not have enough desks or chairs for the students to sit in.  In such cases students have to sit on the floor, lean against the walls or congregate around the teacher's desk.

Many schools experienced unsafe and unsanitary conditions, such as:

  • extreme temperatures of over 100 degrees,
  • vermin infested classrooms,
  • nonfunctioning bathrooms or bathroom stalls without doors,
  • contaminated drinking water,
  • Etc.

(Note, a settlement has been reached to help address the ongoing issue of needed repairs in Detroit’s public schools).

Lack of qualified teachers has also been a consistent issue and the lack of English Learning instruction in some areas.

In one example an 8th grade student was actually put in charge of teaching math classes for one month, because there was no math teacher available in the school.

Some teachers have also complained that the first thing they do in the morning, before children arrive, is clean up rodent droppings from their classroom floors.

Other reports have indicated that children have watched movies during the day, when there was no teacher available to teach.

The conditions in some of these schools have actually gotten worse, and not better, since the lawsuit was filed.  Reportedly there were about 260 teacher vacancies in Detroit's public schools with about four weeks to go before school starts.  This may lead to more overcrowded classrooms and less than optimal instruction in schools where these vacancies exist.

The lawsuit asserts that students cannot learn, or even develop basic literacy skills, in these conditions and that deliberate divestment in Detroit's public schools has helped to lead to this circumstance, as well as indifference to the issues that have been raised by teachers and parents for years.  

This past Thursday a judge heard arguments to dismiss this case based on the state’s request that the lawsuit be thrown out on the grounds that a guaranteed education is not a legal right. 

We will continue to update you on this story.


© 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

Check out our books on education on Amazon.


Chambers, Jennifer.  “Suit: Detroit schoolchildren denied right to literacy.”  The Detroit News.  September 13, 2016.  Accessed August 2017.

Chambers, Jennifer.  “Suit over right to quality education faces big test.”  The Detroit News.  August 9, 2017.  Accessed August 2017.

Cwiek, Sarah.  “Detroit schools ‘right-to-read’ suit asks: What kind of education must state provide?”  Michigan Radio.  August 10, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2017.


Brief of the City of Detroit as Amicus Curiae in Support of Plaintiff’s Response in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.  No. 16-CV-13292, Hon. Stephen J. Murphy III, filed January 2017. Also Class Action Complaint, filed September 13, 2016.

Danita Smith