Education Law

Students have a right to a basic minimum education, 6th Circuit rules

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The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati ruled Thursday that Detroit students at five lower-performing schools have a fundamental right to a basic minimum education.

The 2-1 decision said the right was grounded in the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process, Education Week’s School Law Blog reports.

The majority decision by Judge Eric Clay said the ruling was narrow.

The court said it was not finding a right to education at the quality most have come to expect. “Rather, the right only guarantees the education needed to provide access to skills that are essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties, most importantly participation in our political system,” Clay wrote.

“As described by plaintiffs, this amounts to an education sufficient to provide access to a foundational level of literacy—the degree of comprehension needed for participation in our democracy.”

The 6th Circuit distinguished a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found no fundamental right to education, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. That decision didn’t address the right to a basic minimum education, the 6th Circuit said.

The Detroit children’s lawsuit had alleged substandard conditions that included classes without teachers, freezing temperatures in classrooms, outdated textbooks and insufficient materials, according to coverage by the Detroit Free Press and Courthouse News Service.

In one case, an eighth grade student taught seventh and eighth grade math classes for a month because no teacher was available, the suit said.

In some Detroit schools, there are more rats than teachers, a lawyer for the students, Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, told the ABA Journal in 2017. Some teachers cleaned rat droppings before the school day began. Some bought school supplies and toilet paper.

According to Education Week’s School Law Blog, the case is “part of a new wave of education litigation asserting a federal right to education in various forms.”

A case based on the right to participate in citizenship is pending in Rhode Island. A pending case fighting unequal schools in Mississippi, revived by a federal appeals court, is based on the law readmitting states to the union after the Civil War.

The students in the 6th Circuit case were represented pro bono by Public Counsel and Sidley Austin. The decision, Gary B. v. Whitmer, revived their case.

Hat tip to @kkoeninger44.

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