by Geoffrey Stone
At one Detroit school, just 4 percent of third graders scored proficient on Michigan’s English assessment test. At another, 9.5 percent did. Those students are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last month that asserts that children have a federal constitutional right to the opportunity to learn to read and write.
Illiteracy is the norm at those “slumlike” schools and others in Michigan’s biggest city, according to the plaintiffs. The facilities are decrepit and unsafe. The first thing some teachers do each morning is clean up rodent feces before their students arrive. In some cases, teachers buy the books and school supplies, even the toilet paper.
Lawyers for the students are arguing, in effect, that Michigan is denying their clients the right to a minimally adequate education, an issue that has been raised over the years in courts in other states under their state constitutions.
In Connecticut, a state judge last month ordered sweeping changes to reshape the state’s public schools after concluding that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to provide all students with an adequate education. The judge concluded that the state’s funding system had “left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.”
Now the litigation in Detroit is raising this issue under the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court has never addressed whether disparities among schools would be constitutionally permissible if, as the court put it in 1973, a state failed “to provide each child with an opportunity to acquire the basic minimal skills necessary” for success in life....