Attorneys in literacy lawsuit plan to appeal federal judge’s ‘disappointing’ dismissal

The attorney representing seven Detroit students, parents, and teachers in a lawsuit accusing the state of violating students’ right to access to literacy is going to appeal a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit, filed in September 2016, claimed poor conditions in Detroit schools led to Detroit’s main district having the nation’s lowest literacy rate.

The students and their families plan to appeal the ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a 40-page decision handed down late Friday, U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III rejected the state’s claims that it had no responsibility for the conditions of Detroit schools, and held that “educational responsibilities begin at the state level” and that state officials “effectively control the schools.”

He said that “when a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury — and so does society,” but said literacy is not a right. Murphy said in the ruling the question of a constitutional right to literacy and a basic education should not be decided by any one court and should be supported by a number of Supreme Court decisions.

The state’s attorneys sought to have the lawsuit dismissed and asked the judge to reject “an attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”

“The court got it tragically wrong when it characterized access to literacy as a privilege, instead of a right held by all children so that they may better their circumstances and meaningfully participate in our political system,” Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney representing the student plaintiffs, said in a statement Monday.

The 136-page complaint revealed shocking allegations of condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, and a lack of pens, paper — even toilet paper.

The plaintiffs asked for literacy reforms, qualified teaching staff, basic instructional materials and safe school conditions that don’t interfere with students’ learning. In May and June, the main district’s schools dismissed early because of extreme heat. Late last month, the district issued a report saying it would cost a staggering $500 million to repair its buildings, money the district doesn’t have.

“Friday’s decision is as deeply disappointing, as is having to file a lawsuit in the first place to ensure that the State of Michigan denies no child the opportunity to thrive in schools worthy of

Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says failure to provide quality literacy instruction to all kids is a ‘pernicious form of racial inequality.’ (Erin Einhorn)

their desire to learn,” Rosenbaum of the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the nation’s largest public interest law firm, said.

Rosenbaum added that children in affluent communities don’t have to attend schools without books and attempt to learn in such poor conditions, and that he will continue to fight for Detroit students to have their day in court.

The City of Detroit, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Literacy Association, and community groups such 482Forward filed briefs supporting the suit.

A spokeswoman for 482Forward, a citywide education coalition, was disappointed in the ruling.

“The judge is agreeing these disparities exist,” said Wytrice Harris, who has taught and tutored students. “But he is saying he can’t do anything about it.”

The governor’s office and the families represented in the suit did not respond to requests for comment.