Over the summer, a Federal District Court judge ruled that literacy is not a constitutional right, but issues surrounding underfunding and teacher shortages continue to plague large, urban districts in Michigan, particularly Detroit’s public schools.
The judge, Stephen J. Murphy III, acknowledged that “When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury—and so does society.” Education is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, though, so he ruled that the federal court cannot declare education a right. The court dismissed the case on that basis
Questions remain, and the case may be appealed, according to Mark Rosenbaum, one of the lawyers on the team representing the Detroit students who filed the case. Rosenbaum, who has filed a similar suit in California, added that “the most telling fact in Michigan today is that blameless kids in Detroit are going to schools where they don’t find teachers or books, and this is just the latest version of that historic attempt to subordinate certain communities.” He argues that when the state runs underfunded, urban, and predominantly Black and Latino population schools, it is akin to the literacy tests many states used to require as a means of disenfranchising voters.
A common refrain from the students who filed the case was that many of their classes were taught by substitute teachers due to underfunding and mismanagement. At the start of this new school year, Michigan continues to see drastic teacher shortages in many communities. Following years of education funding cuts by the current and previous governors, pay freezes (and even cuts) have been common for teacher salary scales. In 2010, the Michigan legislature enacted a law requiring teachers to contribute 3% toward their retirement healthcare. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional in December of 2017, but the case had been appealed numerous times and took seven years to reach ultimate resolution. This along with many other factors has made it difficult to recruit teachers to—or attract college students to become teachers in—Michigan.