Literacy… for Whom?

The significance of the Gary B. v. Snyder lawsuit dismissal.

Detroit students opened up the conversation on who has the right to education (Source: Steve Neavling).

Detroit students opened up the conversation on who has the right to education (Source: Steve Neavling).

On June 29, 2018 US District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III dismissed a federal class-action lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder. The lawsuit, filed in 2016 by Public Counsel and Sidley Austin LLP on behalf of a class of students, claimed the plaintiffs were deprived of the right to literacy. The decision will be appealed at the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although Judge Murphy agreed a degree of literacy is important for such matters as voting and job searching, he did not say it was fundamental: constitutional.  The central reasoning for the dismissal of the case was the suit failed to show overt racial discrimination by the defendants in charge of the Detroit Public Schools: the state of Michigan. The other reasoning Judge Murphy provided was that the 14th amendment’s due process clause does not require Michigan provide “minimally adequate education.”

Meanwhile the case brings up an important question its initial filing gave rise to: is literacy a constitutional right? One could argue the importance of literacy goes back to Reconstruction. According to Professor Derek Black, Southern states had to rewrite their constitutions with an education guarantee in addition to passing the 14th amendment before they could be readmitted into the US. Black states “the explicit right of citizenship in the 14th  Amendment included an implicit right to education.”

The theme of education and citizenship is a central component to the complaint’s argument for literacy as a fundamental right. It appeared in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case too, which emphasized that education was “the very foundation of good citizenship.” The complaint drew on this citizenship theme to argue the importance of establishing elementary literacy tools—about the equivalent of a 3rd grade reading level. These can then develop into adolescent literacy skills, which allow an individual to comprehend and engage with words. Such engagement is what democratic citizens need when they are making decisions on who to vote; even more importantly, literacy is essential to understanding the often complex ballots voting requires. Further, literacy allows one to take part in political conversations.

The schools in question also “serve more than 97% children of color,” according to the complaint. Many of these students also come from low income families. On the 2017 Nation’s Report Card the average score out of 500 for reading was 182 for Detroit 4th graders, compared to the national average of 213 in other large city school districts. If the 1982 Pyler v. Doe case argued children could not be denied free public education that is offered to other children within the same state—in line with the 14th amendment—then why the disparity in scores?

The plaintiffs believe the disparity lies in deeply rooted issues in the Detroit Public Schools. They argue literacy tools that are first taught in elementary school are not only unavailable to them but that their schools are also not adequate environments for fostering education.The complaint mentions unsanitary conditions, extreme classroom temperatures, and overcrowded classrooms as environmental stressors. They also mention inadequate classroom materials as well as outdated and overused textbooks.

Worn history textbook from 1998 (source: Public Counsel).

Worn history textbook from 1998 (source: Public Counsel).

Not only is the school environment not conducive to learning for these students but their teachers are often not the proper facilitators for learning. The complaint mention such issues as high teacher turnover, frequent teacher absences, lack of short term substitute teachers, inadequate teacher training, and allowance of non-certified individuals.  The complaint also states students at these schools may also have unaddressed issues related to trauma teachers are not trained for.

And the solution to these discrepancies could very well be what the plaintiffs are arguing for: make literacy, education, a fundamental right. In a 2012 Pearson study on global education systems, the US was number 17. All the countries ahead of the US had either a constitutional guarantee of education or a statue acknowledging the role of education. According to Stephen Lurie, this creates a baseline ruling of what education entails: a culture of education around which laws can form.

Such a baseline ensures education is not a question of privilege. Indeed such conditions as the complaint mentions, as lawyer Mark Rosenbaum stated, would be “unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations.”  What Gary B. v. Sanders is asking for is a safe school environment, trained teachers, and basic instructional materials. It is asking that Detroit students are guaranteed a minimum of education that will at least give them the chance other students in Michigan have at becoming informed citizens and adults.


TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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