ACLU Blasts Appeals Court Ruling That Government Not Obligated to Provide Quality Public Education to Schoolchildren

November 07, 2014

DETROIT – In a blow to schoolchildren statewide, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that the State of Michigan has no legal obligation to provide a quality public education to students in the struggling Highland Park School District.

In a 2-1 decision that reverses an earlier circuit court ruling that there is a “broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children,” the appellate court said that the state has no constitutional requirement to ensure that schoolchildren actually learn fundamental skills such as reading – but rather is obligated only to establish and finance a public education system, regardless of quality. Waving off decades of historic judicial impact on educational reform, the majority opinion also contends that “judges are not equipped to decide educational policy.”

“This ruling should outrage anyone who cares about our public education system,” said Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties of Michigan. “The court washes its hands and absolves the state of any responsibility in a district that has failed and continues to fail its children.”

The decision dismisses an unprecedented “right-to-read” lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan in July 2012 on behalf of eight students of nearly 1,000 children attending K-12 public schools in Highland Park, Mich. The suit, which named as plaintiffs the State of Michigan, its agencies charged with overseeing public education and the Highland Park School District, maintained that the state failed to take effective steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level.

“Let’s remember that it was the state that turned the entire district over to a for-profit charter management company with no track record of success with low performing schools,” continued Moss. “It is the state that has not enforced the law that requires literacy intervention to children not reading at grade level. It is the state that has allowed these kids to attend, until recently, a high school that used to be a prison. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure and maintain a system of education that serves all children.”

In a dissenting opinion, appellate court judge Douglas Shapiro accused the court of “abandonment of our essential judicial roles, that of enforcement of the rule of law even where the defendants are governmental entities, and of protecting the rights of all who live within Michigan’s borders, particularly those, like children, who do not have a voice in the political process.”

MEAP test results from 2012 painted a bleak picture for Highland Park students and parents. In the 2013-14 year, no fewer than 78.9 percent of current fourth graders and 73 percent of current seventh graders will require the special intervention mandated by statute. By contrast, 65 percent of then-fourth graders and 75 percent of then-seventh graders required statutory intervention entering the 2012-13 school year.