The governor won't contest a court ruling that found students have a constitutional right to learn to read and agrees to more funding for Detroit schools.
This story is updated below.
Michigan's governor won't contest a major court ruling that established Detroit's schoolchildren have a constitutional right to learn how to read.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a settlement in the case on Thursday, three weeks after the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision that kids have a right to "a basic minimum education" that gives them the opportunity to become literate, the first time a federal court had asserted that right.
Under her deal with plaintiffs, the governor agreed to send some money to Detroit's schools and its students, along with a pledge to advocate for significantly more funds from the Legislature. And the governor will task the Michigan Department of Education with recommending "evidence-based literacy strategies" to districts statewide.
Seven Detroit students brought the case in federal court against Michigan's then-governor, Rick Snyder, and other state officials in 2016. They claimed that their education had been so inadequate that they could barely read, violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights.
A district court initially dismissed the case, finding that no such right to an education existed. But last month a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court and ruled that students do have a right to a basic education and a chance at literacy. The Sixth Circuit ruling meant the plaintiffs could proceed with their case, but the settlement now makes that unnecessary.
"I have always said that every student, no matter where they come from, has a birthright to a quality public education," Whitmer, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Today's settlement is a good start, but there's more work to do to create paths to opportunity for our children."
The settlement requires Whitmer to propose legislation during her first term that would provide at least $94.4 million for literacy-related programs in Detroit's public schools, such as training teachers, hiring reading tutors, buying books and technology and reducing class sizes. However, there's no guarantee that spending will make it through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
For now, the state will pay out $2.72 million to Detroit's schools for literacy-related support and $280,000 to the seven student plaintiffs to continue their education.
As part of the deal, Whitmer will also request that the Michigan Department of Education advise schools on "evidence-based" literacy programs, with a special focus on addressing class and racial disparities.
The legal battle over a right to literacy may not be finished, however. On Wednesday, attorneys general from 10 states — Tennessee, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio and Texas — filed a brief asking the full Sixth Circuit to rehear the case. Those states argue that establishing a right to a minimum education would "radically transform" public education, taking power away from local decision-makers and miring states in "unremitting and costly litigation" without helping students.
Three of those states — Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee — are covered by the Sixth Circuit and could fall under the court's literacy ruling. Even if the full Sixth Circuit agrees to rehear the case, the Michigan settlement would be unaffected.
Mark Rosenbaum, director of the pro bono firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law that filed the case for the students, called the settlement "historic."
"While there is much work left to be done, today's settlement paves the way for the State of Michigan to fulfill its moral obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to children that have been denied a fair shake for far too long," he said. "This victory is their victory, and in this moment the children and their families and the teachers of Detroit have taught a nation what it means to fight for justice and win."
Update (June 12, 2020): Days after the settlement was announced, a majority of the Sixth Circuit's 16 active judges voted to have the case argued again in front of all the court's judges, what's known as an en banc review. That vote undid the initial ruling — that there's a constitutional right to a basic education — and struck it as a precedent. However, this week, a majority of the judges decided a re-hearing wasn't necessary because the settlement made the case moot. The settlement will remain in place. But the question of whether there's a federal right to a basic education will be left unaddressed for now.