In a ground-breaking decision last week, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the US Constitution “provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education” for all students and that the “Supreme Court has recognized that basic literacy is foundational to our political process and society”. The decision makes it clear that public education has a critical role in providing the right to a basic education.
The Court was ruling on a lawsuit filed by students on behalf of students in some of the lowest-performing schools in the Detroit public school system. Their case was based on the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. They claimed that poor student performance was due to poor conditions in their classroom including missing or unqualified teachers, inadequate and physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials.
In its decision, the Court noted that “the history of education in the United States also demonstrates a substantial relationship between access to education and access to economic and political power” [p. 41]. It gave two basic reasons for recognising the fundamental right to education for all students. One is that a basic minimum education is essential for participation in the political system. The second is the guarantee of fundamental fairness in education provided by the 14th Amendment.
The judges observed that ”every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning that access to literacy is necessary to access our political process” [p. 42]. They ruled that:
….a basic minimum education − meaning one that plausibly provides access to literacy − is fundamental because it is necessary for even the most limited participation in our country’s democracy.
Effectively every interaction between a citizen and her government depends on literacy. Voting, taxes, the legal system, jury duty − all of these are predicated on the ability to read and comprehend written thoughts. [p. 47]
The judges also said that “the unique role” of public education is to provide opportunities for children beyond the means of their parents. They noted the enduring belief that education is a means of achieving equality in our society:
…education has historically been viewed as a “great equalizer”: regardless of the circumstances of a child’s birth, a minimum education provides some chance of success according to that child’s innate abilities. [p. 49]
Moreover, public education has a critical role in removing racial discrimination in education:
The Supreme Court’s desegregation cases make clear that state-provided public education is important not just to provide a shot at achievement in the face of inequalities of wealth and power, but specifically as a means of addressing past racial discrimination that restricted educational opportunities, and of course to maintain as best we can whatever equal opportunity has already been achieved. [p. 50]
The judges noted that it is difficult to define the scope of a basic minimum education and that it was the responsibility of the district court in the first instance. However, it noted some key principles as a guide to the lower court. It said that the quantity and quality of teachers, facilities and educational materials “must at least be sufficient for students to plausibly attain literacy within the educational system at issue” [p. 57].
According to Yale Law School Professor, Justin Driver, the ruling is “the most momentous circuit court decision in the field of education in decades”. In a statement to the Washington Post, the lead lawyer for the students summed up the significance of the decision as follows:
This decision affirms that the right to a basic education ensuring access to literacy is far more than an aspiration, but rather is constitutional birthright of every child. It reveals the power of community that has struggled for decades to have all children receive a fair shot at bettering their circumstances and the necessity of our federal courts to stand up on behalf of those the political process ignores or disdains. Everyone who loves children should celebrate this thrilling victory.