Access to Literacy is Not a Fundamental Right
On June 29, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Court) issued its decision in Gary B. v. Snyder, et al., holding that access to literacy is not a fundamental right. The Plaintiffs in this case were minor children who attend or attended public schools in Detroit, and who alleged that the conditions in their public schools were so poor and so inadequate that they did not receive even a minimally adequate education – specifically, access to literacy. As a result, Plaintiffs claimed they were: (1) deprived of a fundamental right in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and (2) disparately treated based on their race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Before getting to the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims, the Court first considered whether they had sued the proper Defendants – the State of Michigan and state officials. Defendants argued they could not be sued because they did not operate Detroit’s public schools and, even if they did, they were immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. However, the Court found that Defendants did control Detroit’s public schools because the state had appointed an emergency financial manager for the schools and had eventually designated the schools for supervision by a state school reform/redesign officer. Because the State of Michigan and its officials effectively controlled Detroit public schools, they were appropriately sued by Plaintiffs. Moreover, they did not qualify for Eleventh Amendment immunity.
Looking to the Constitutional questions, the Court reviewed numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases to determine whether access to literacy as a fundamental right had been addressed. Finding that it had not, the Court “cautiously” tried to answer that question itself. The Court acknowledged both that “the conditions and outcomes of Plaintiffs’ schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating” and that “literacy – and the opportunity to obtain it – is of incalculable importance.” Even so, the Court reasoned that access to literacy is not a fundamental right because declaring it a fundamental right “requires a finding that neither liberty nor justice would exist absent state-provided literacy access.” The Court held that the Due Process Clause does not demand that a state affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy.
Finally, the Court considered whether Plaintiffs had stated a valid Equal Protection claim. Because access to literacy was not a fundamental right, Plaintiffs’ deprivation of it merely needed to be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. The Court found that Plaintiffs had not plausibly pled that the government’s decisions were irrational, and so their Equal Protection claim failed. The case was dismissed with prejudice, but Plaintiffs plan to appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lawsuits seeking to have education declared a fundamental constitutional right are not uncommon, however they are usually filed in state court based upon a state’s constitution. In 1996, the Illinois Supreme Court found that “while education is certainly a vitally important governmental function, it is not a fundamental individual right for equal protection purposes, and thus the appropriate standard of review is the rational basis test.” Committee for Educational Rights et al., v. Edgar, 174 Ill.2d 1, at 37 (Ill. 1996).