Judge to Detroit Students: We Can't Force Schools to Actually Teach You Anything

Reading is fundamental, but it's not a fundamental right.


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A federal judge has made it very clear in a new ruling that the government can force you to send your kids to school, but you can't force the government to actually provide an education there.

Judge Stephen Murphy III of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, just dismissed a case originating from Detroit accusing Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials of doing such a terrible job when the then-bankrupt city was under the control of emergency managers that they deprived students of a right to an education or even basic literacy.

The plaintiffs argued that this extremely crappy non-education violated their Due Process and Equal Protection rights under the 14th Amendment. The State of Michigan argued that this complaint—a demand for "access to literacy"—is not constitutionally recognized. The judge agreed, though he very much sympathized with the students, and dismissed the case.

While the dismissal is prompting some outrage (and the plaintiffs promise to appeal) it should not come as a surprise. The courts have been extremely reluctant to wade into any space where they define what sort of an education anybody has a "right" to, though they've certainly been fine with the government forcing kids to attend regardless. A Supreme Court case from 1973, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, held that the U.S. Constitution did not establish a "fundamental right to education."

But that ruling was about equal access to educational tools and funding mechanisms. The San Antonio case was about whether it was constitutional to use property taxes as a school funding mechanism if it meant that students in poorer communities got worse educations than those in wealthier communities (answer: yes). In this case, Murphy noted, the plaintiffs are simply arguing that they aren't getting any sort of education at all. Was that a distinctly different enough argument for Murphy to contradict pervious precedents? Is basic "access to literacy" a fundamental right?

In the end, the judge ruled it was not:

Plainly, literacy—and the opportunity to obtain it—is of incalculable importance. As Plaintiffs point out, voting, participating meaningfully in civic life, and accessing justice require some measure of literacy. Applying for a job, securing a place to live, and applying for government benefits routinely require the completion of written forms. Simply finding one's way through many aspects of ordinary life stands as an obstacle to one who cannot read.

But those points do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right. The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized, in Rodriguez and elsewhere, that the importance of a good or service "does not determine whether it must be regarded as fundamental[.]"

He noted previous examples where courts have ruled that there's no fundamental right to water or sewer service and that the Due Process Clause does not compel the state to protect a child from an abusive father or from a bully in school.

So even when the government has the authority to mandate behaviors of the citizens under the law, it's a one-way street. The judge ruled that the state cannot be affirmatively ordered to provide students even the basic level of education to achieve literacy.

This is not to say the judge's ruling is wrong. If the courts did rule that schools were constitutionally mandated to provide a certain level of education, imagine the lawsuits that would follow as everybody attempted to make the case for how that level of education should be determined. We already have a constant culture war within the education system itself about what schools are supposed to be teaching. The last thing we need is for the courts to get dragged into figuring out those boundaries.

But what people should take away from this ruling is the importance of competition and choice in forcing schools to improve. If the courts can't make a school provide a certain level of education, parents and students must be free to pick other schools. Education must be a marketplace. A court can't order a grocery store to sell certain products, but they know that if they don't provide what customers need somebody else will and they'll lose business. Schools should be the same way. And there's evidence to show that when there's charter schools and other school choice options around, public schools start to improve.

If the courts lack the authority to force schools to provide a certain level of education, we should make sure that parents have access to school choice to decide what's best for their own kids.