How 30 minutes could make or break Detroit school ‘right to read’ lawsuit

Around 3 a.m. Thursday morning, two buses mostly full of Detroiters will leave for Cincinnati for a hearing in a historic “right to read” federal lawsuit that seeks to hold the state accountable for education outcomes in Detroit.

There’s a lot at stake. The case is the first of its kind in federal court to argue that access to literacy is a fundamental right. And it seeks major remedies: literacy reforms, a systemic approach to instruction and intervention, and fixes to buildings that are in poor condition. 

A federal judge in Detroit dismissed the case in 2018, but the plaintiffs quickly filed an appeal.

Lawyers for the state and the plaintiffs will have just 30 minutes to plead their case before a panel of judges on a federal appeals court. Then the waiting begins, and it could be months before the court rules.

Helen Moore, a longtime activist who organized the bus trip, hopes the court sides with the plaintiffs.

“Education for our children is in jeopardy,” she said Tuesday.

Moore, who is co-chair of the Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition advocacy group, said more than 100 people are expected to make the trip, with many more on the waiting list for a seat.

Also expected to attend the hearing: Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Officials in the district filed a brief last year in support of the lawsuit.

Michigan officials are targeted in the lawsuit because the state controlled the Detroit school district for much of the time between 1999 and the end of 2016.

The lawsuit arguments

Here’s a breakdown of what we expect to be key arguments made Thursday:

Plaintiffs: They’ll argue that the state is responsible for systemwide failures they say have deprived Detroit children of their right to literacy, left many classrooms and buildings in terrible condition, and left teachers without the resources they needed to do their jobs.

Defendants: They will likely argue that plaintiffs haven’t proven there’s a constitutional right to literacy. They’re also expected to argue that the lawsuit is moot because the people who were in charge at the school and state level are gone, new leaders are in place, and the school district is under local control. 

Case timeline

Want to get caught up with major developments in the case? Check out Chalkbeat Detroit coverage below:

September 2016: An allegation that an eighth-grade student taught math to his classmates was among the claims in the lawsuit. 

January 2017: Detroit students blast then-Gov. Rick Snyder over the state’s response to the right to read lawsuit. 

March 2018: Eighteen months after the lawsuit was filed, Detroit students are still in legal limbo

July 2018: Attorneys for plaintiffs in the lawsuit plan to appeal after a federal judge dismissed the case. 

November 2018: The lawsuit gets new backers and fresh hope.

November 2018: Read why experts and advocates are backing the lawsuit.

May 2019: A member of the state board of education says Michigan should side with students in the lawsuit.

June 2019: Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, urges court to recognize the right to a minimally adequate education.