Recess Blog

A Constitutional Right to Literacy?

By Rob Schroeder
March 10, 2017

The Constitution doesn’t mention literacy, and the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected claims that there’s a fundamental right to an education.  But a novel lawsuit filed in Michigan seeks to establish literacy as a basic notion of equality, liberty and dignity, protected by the 14th Amendment.

Filed in U.S. District Court, Gary B. v. Snyder alleges conditions are so bad in Detroit schools that the state of Michigan—which has directly run the Detroit Public Schools for most of this century—has effectively excluded certain schoolchildren from the state’s public education system. And that, the lawsuit charges, violates the kids’ fundamental right to literacy.

In the American Bar Association Journal, the College's Benjamin Superfine (photo below), PhD, associate professor of educational policy studies, says says school finance litigation has generally not succeeded in the federal courts.

Ben Superfine, standing in front of bookshelves

“There’s a much weaker textual basis for the lawsuit than we see in state-level school finance litigation,” says Superfine, who also has a law degree.

Superfine says establishing a federal right to literacy could be “a game changer for large-scale education reform,” giving plaintiffs across the country a tool for forcing change.

[He] cautions that even a Supreme Court win would be only a first step toward school finance reform. Lasting change would mean courts and communities will have to stay involved.

“I think it would be a wonderful first step because, you know, political means have clearly failed in DPS,” says Superfine. “But it’s only the first step.”

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