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

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

LiteracyTegotego / Dreamstime.comA 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.

Photo Credit: Tegotego / Dreamstime.com

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  • Cathy L||

    But what people should take away from this ruling is the importance of competition and choice in forcing schools to improve.

    Not to mention the immorality of forcing children to attend school.

  • BYODB||

    Even by strictly utilitarian concerns public education fails since it's a simple truism that you can't force people to learn, thus spreading a limited resource among those who are interested in learning and those who are not automatically means those who can and will learn are going to learn less.

    Of course, that assumes the point of public education is education. It is not.

  • Rat on a train||

    For some it is daycare.

  • damikesc||

    So...why is legal requirement to attend still there?

  • prolefeed||

    Because FYTW.

    They put it prettier than that, but that's it.

  • Longtobefree||

    Education not withstanding, they will still get a progressive indoctrination, and that is what actually matters.

  • perlchpr||

    Even worse, since children are required to attend school, there is a non-zero possibility that there are children who might otherwise go somewhere else and learn something who will instead be forced to attend school and learn nothing, instead.

  • Rat on a train||

    Funding formulas.

  • KBeckman||

    Technically there isn't in Michigan.

  • damikesc||

    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.

    I can only imagine the high brain power education provided before the city went bankrupt.

  • Just Say'n||

    "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."

    Should have been dismissed, because the point was moot. "We all know that the schools in Detroit weren't teaching anyone to read for the past fifteen years."

  • Happy Chandler||

    Uncited assertion appears to be mistaken. News at 11.

    No, I haven't found a comparison of Detroit from the '90's to today, but:

    Michigan's performance in the 1990s and early 2000s often ranked above the national average, but the state now lags behind it. This year, the state's average score increased by a point or two in several areas, but the change was not enough to be considered significant.
  • Whorton||

    Venezuela is getting there. . .

  • JonFrum||

    As if the kids were learning anything when the city of Detroit was running things. You know they graduate functional illiterates by the hundreds every year. Then again, you try herding cats.

  • Rhywun||

    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).

    Ah, the olden days.

    Nowadays, many poorer communities get more funding than their wealthier neighbors and still get worse educations. Maybe money wasn't the answer all along?

  • sparkstable||

    Do you have a citation for this? I'm not disputing it... I would actually like to have access to such information for future discussions with "educators".

  • Rhywun||

    Lots of info out there. First one I found.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Poor districts certainly get more state funding at least in some states.

    Wisconsin for example uses a state aid formula that attempts to equalize per student spending across districts. This will necessarily give more state aid to poor districts than to wealthy districts.

    Wisconsin School Aid Formula.

  • sparkstable||

    I'm looking for a study that shows, as claimed, that a) poor districts are overall better funded and b) are out performed by more affluent yet less well funded districts.

    Neither of those links are that. I know districts get lots of money. It's just that what was stated was a comparative analysis and that's what I would like a citation for.

  • kcuch||

    Rhywun|7.3.18 @ 1:25PM|#

    This appears to do that. Compare the ROI columns. The adjustments are four socio-economic factors: poverty rates, incomes, single-parent households, language.

    I do not recommend that you look at the test scores or it will confirm what you think when you look in your fellow citizens eyes.

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, this follows existing rulings that the cops do not actually have to protect the taxpayers.
    Cops don't have to cop, teachers do not have to teach. Public employee unions in common?

  • sparkstable||

    While I'm all for throwing the public unions under the bus... I think that's not the functional common denominator. That would be "government" in general. Power for me, but not for thee.

  • perlchpr||

    Yeah.

    "We can force you to pay for the service at gunpoint, but fuck you if you think that means you're entitled to receive it."

  • An Owl Named Dur||

    This.

  • creech||

    Yeah, and if there were a Libertarian Party actually doing, you know, politics maybe more and more voters would "get it."

  • Paulpemb||

    Just think, when we finally have socialized medicine the courts can say that doctors don't have to provide medical care, either.

  • Don't look at me.||

    "we should make sure that parents have access to school choice to decide what's best for their own kids."

    So force someone to start a charter school?

  • Cathy L||

    Reason: We're in favor of free markets.

    Commenters: So you want to force people to start businesses?

  • Don't look at me.||

    How else can you make sure there is a choice?

  • Bob Straub||

    So force someone to start a charter school?
    Of course not.
    Almost everywhere in the U.S., people who send their kids to non-public schools pay twice: once for private school tuition, and once through tax-funded public schools that they have no intention of using. That needs to end. If it did, people who want private schooling will have a lot more money to spend, which will create demand. Also most everywhere, private and home schools must meet syllabus requirements imposed by the states. That needs to end, too. That will encourage the creation of a supply of schooling alternatives.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Is basic "access to literacy" a fundamental right?"

    No - there is no such thing as fundamental affirmative rights.

    There is also no such thing fundamental affirmative duties.

    Anything that imposes an affirmative burden on someone else is not a right.

  • Griffin3||

    The judge agreed, though he very much sympathized with the students

    If the judge had truly sympathized with the students, he should have ruled that while there was no right to an education, there was no duty by the citizens to pay for a service which was not being provided.*

    [Judges have been seen to do this: ~"While the extant case must be dismissed, a case using the same arguments to block enforcement of the tax codes for the portion of property taxes being used to fund education might find a better reception with this court. It would also benefit from previous rulings that found while sewer/water service was not a right, those persons who were not able to be served by the county could not be forced to pay sewer/water fees."~]

  • perlchpr||

    That would be pretty glorious.

  • Karl B.||

    Along the same lines, there's no reason the government should be forced to pay schools for services not rendered.

  • Citizen X||

    Can't we trick the Canadians into taking Detroit, or something? Trudeau seems like he's pretty simple and easily conned.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Call everyone in Detroit a "refugee" and Trudeau will fast-track them in.

  • Citizen X||

    That works, mainly because "refugee" is not an inaccurate descriptor of the typical Detroit resident.

  • perlchpr||

    I've daydreamed about that idea for a while.

    "Gift" both Chicago and Detroit to Canada, and take Vancouver in exchange. Land route to Alaska!

    Also, it would be hilarious to see what happened to the relative gun violence statistics for the US and for Canada afterwards.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Someone here once pointed out that the first order of the system is to protect the system. There's no way any judge would ever rule in the plaintiff's favor here. All anyone would have to do is claim "I received a substandard education" and the school system would collapse under lawsuits.

    An interesting case in the reverse was the famous McCleary case backed by teacher's unions where the plaintiff claimed her kids' education was "underfunded". That was just as vague as the plaintiff's case here, but that decision grew the system instead of undermined it. You can almost predict how these cases will go just by who benefits.

  • Rich||

    a demand for "access to literacy"

    "WUT DOO WE WONT?!"

  • BYODB||


    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.


    This is obviously very true, even if I would seriously question the bit where kids can be forced into school. I've said for years that you can't force someone to learn yet it's one of the central conceits of our education system that education occurs via osmosis and can be forced into a person.


    It's obviously untrue and unsupported by any data whatsoever, but there it is.

  • BenjaminTheDonkey||

    The schools can't polish a turd. I learned to read because my mom sat me in her lap and read to me before I could even speak. Parents drop their kids off at government buildings and expect a miracle instead of taking responsibility for educating the fruit of their loins. If there are few if any books in the home, if you don't read to the kid, if you don't even read for your own sake, what do you expect from your children? The poop apple doesn't fall far from the poop tree and no amount of government spending will be able to change that.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    Exactly.

    "We Can't Force Schools to Actually Teach You Anything"

    There is a difference between teach and learn. You can't force a kid to learn, or deliver homework completely and on time.

    Some kids don't care about learning. Some care, but have a hard time. The latter needs extra resources and help. The parents may not be able to deliver on that. But that doesn't mean the government has to make you whole with respect to education.

  • Steve-O||

    Exactly it. Parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. I taught my kids their letters before they were in school, and my wife taught them how to read.

    I pay a good deal of money (by my standards) to send my kids to a parish school, but that is more to keep them away from the public school bullshit than it is to secure them a better education. I do not view my role in my kids' learning as handing them over to someone else and hoping for the best. In fact, I'm relatively unconcerned with the educational rigor of the school. If I feel my kids are not learning what they need to at school, I will teach them.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children."'

    Agreed, at least up to a certain age. At some point you become responsible for your own learning.

    My grandmother enrolled me into a children's book of the month club before I started school and helped me learn to read.

  • Happy Chandler||

    The legacy of Betsy Devos.

  • perlchpr||

    Lawsuit filed in September 2016, but sure, it's definitely Trump's fault.

  • Happy Chandler||

    Michigan schools were Devos' pet cause before going to Washington. I said nothing about Trump.

    Devos was heavily involved in destroying Michigan schools, and that was her qualification to run the DOE.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""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 ""

    Was Devos one of the emergency managers?

    Devos could have put the school on a better track only for the emergency managers to piss it away. I don't know. Perhaps you could explain how she destroyed the schools?

  • Happy Chandler||

    Devos basically wrote the charter school laws for Michigan. They are probably the most unregulated in the nation.
    Detroit has the second highest percentage of students in charter schools, to New Orleans.

    Michigan has had a Republican governor who appointed the emergency managers, and who was supported with millions of Devos dollars. Is there any evidence of your assertion?

  • Michael Cook||

    This is kinda in my wheelhouse because in my short (8yr) career in education I taught full time grades 3-12, was certified as a school counselor and a part time principal, and certified as a Native American Drug and Alcohol Counselor on the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux Reservation.

    First of all, phrasing the issue as "schools are not required to teach you anything" makes it seem that knowledge is an entitlement and schools can pour it in children's ears until each gets some measure of an equal amount. That fundamental misunderstanding of what schools can and should be about is the curse of our times.

    The best a teacher or a school can do is instill some measure of self-discipline (a work ethic), social discipline (so as not to cheat, bully others, or constantly cause a distraction in class or demand undue attention from instructors), and, hopefully a sense of intellectual curiosity. If a child acquires a sense of wonder, an inner insatiable desire to know more, nothing in the American system will stop them.

    But 90% of students don't have much intellectual curiosity or wonder at all. The majority just want their career ticket stamped so they can eventually become an accountant, or a dentist, or a Supreme Court justice. They don't want to know WHY about anything.

  • Empress Trudy||

    I don't see a problem. The vehicle for getting rid of bad schools if you want to get rid of bad schools is stop electing bad board members and stop voting for property tax hikes 'for the children'

  • Happy Chandler||

    The state took over the schools, meaning the citizens of Detroit could not choose their own leadership.

    The moral of the story is don't elect Republicans.

  • ejpoleii||

    OTOH, see McCleary v. State of Washington in the SCOW. "Article IX, section 1 confers on children in Washington a positive constitutional right to an amply funded education." This refers to the Wa State Constitution, of course.

    http://www.courts.wa.gov/opini.....27.opn.pdf

  • sharmota4zeb||

    My parents bought their first house in a bad school district that was starting to racially integrate with the intention of being part of that change. They helped run a freedom school staffed by volunteers. The plan was to put students in the freedom school so that the absentee rate in the school district would embarrass the school board and trigger state regulations leading to the denial of funds to the school. It worked. The school board caved in and improved the education at the government school.

    A generation later, I was teaching a a magnet school in Brooklyn for kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The theme of the school was social justice. The principle eventually put me in charge of detentions. I told that story to the kids during detention. The principle stopped having me run the detentions. In retrospect, I should have opened class in the second semester by playing "The Wall" for the entire class period then turned my biology class into an introduction to practical politics.

  • Happy Chandler||

    I'm wondering how many teachers don't know how to spell principal.

    Did you read that story online or what?

  • IMissLiberty||

    Sue them for fraud and negligence and stop reelecting them!

  • Rath||

    You missed a big issue with the case.

    The Plaintiff was arguing, essentially, from a social justice position. They were asking for a ruling that there is a fundamental right to have a certain level of education (literacy).

    That argument is a major part of why an otherwise sympathetic judge could not rule for them.

    If they had argued that it was a deprivation, meaning that the State was providing a certain level of education to everyone except the poor black Detroit kids, then they would have had a real shot.

    Their lawyers screwed this up, royally, by putting forth the arguments that best approximated the political outcomes the lawyers wanted. They should have put forth the arguments most likely to get a positive outcome for their clients.

  • Elsaaa||

    strange thing to Judge somebody who doesn't want to know anything! in QandA we think that only smart person want to learn something!

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