Advance Notice: Briefs

A landmark literacy suit was settled. But Republicans won a 2nd look in court.

By: - May 21, 2020 5:09 am

A U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in favor of a group of Detroit students last month determining that students have the right to a basic education and a fundamental right to literacy. However, the full court agreed to a request from state lawmakers on Tuesday to rehear the case, Gary B. v. Whitmer, and reconsider the ruling. 

This comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer already announced the state’s settlement last week, and agreed to funnel millions of dollars into the Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) to help fund literacy efforts.

Now the GOP-led Legislature is arguing that a further ruling from the full COA could change that. Whitmer spokesperson Chelsea Lewis said the governor’s office is reviewing the order. 

Whitmer, who became the defendant when she became governor in 2019, agreed to propose legislation that would give DPSCD with at least $94.4 million for literacy programs, provide $280,000 to the seven student-plaintiffs to access “high-quality” literacy programs or otherwise further their education and provide $2.7 million to DPSCD to fund literacy-related efforts. 

Education advocates call on Whitmer to settle literacy suit 

The suit, which originally named then-Gov. Rick Snyder as the defendant, demanded Detroit students have “access to literacy by ensuring that they are provided with evidence-based, grade-appropriate programs for literacy instruction and intervention and monitoring conditions that deny students access to literacy such as lack of teachers and deplorable school conditions.” 

The three-judge COA panel agreed.

“Having addressed Plaintiffs’ two alternative claims for relief, we are left with the central issue in this appeal: whether Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, meaning one that provides access to literacy,” Judge Eric Clay wrote in late April. “While the Supreme Court has repeatedly discussed this issue, it has never decided it, and the question of whether such a right exists remains open today. … We recognize that the Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education.”

After the 2-1 decision, the Legislature, which has intervened in the case, asked that all 16 active judges rehear the case, calling it a “breath-taking attack on federalism.”  Attorney John Bursch filed the petition, arguing the ruling strips state and local governments of their “supervisory authority.”

Whitmer calls for state’s removal from literacy suit

“Such fundamental rights, created out of constitutional silence, are hopelessly nebulous,” Bursch wrote. “They shift state and local policy from state and local policy makers to the federal judiciary. And they will inevitably be expanded by future courts to fix social problems of their choosing.”

Bursch also argued that the state could not afford to increase Detroit’s per-pupil funding ahead of an already devastating fiscal year for the state budget — which is looking at a $6.3 billion budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2020 and FY 2021.

Now the decision will be reviewed by the conservative-leaning full Sixth Circuit, which oversees Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The vote to rehear the case vacates the panel’s ruling and it is no longer considered the precedent. 

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.