Photograph courtesy of Element5 Digital, Unsplash

“The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth”  Dutch Philosopher and Scholar of the northern Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536), The Erasmus Reader

The right to basic education should be a given in a developed country of the 21st Century. Apparently it’s not:  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found it necessary to affirm last Thursday that the right to a basic education, meaning one that provides access to literary education, is a fundamental right under the Constitution. The court made this holding in the case of Gary B. v. Whitmer, a lawsuit brought by students of several of Detroit’s worst-performing schools. The case will be sent back to a lower court for a new ruling.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / First Lady Barbara Bush at the 1989 UNESCO International Literacy Day celebration / Public Domain

“Plaintiffs in this appeal are students at several of Detroit’s worst- performing public schools. They credit this substandard performance to poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials. Taken together, Plaintiffs say these conditions deprive them of a basic minimum education, meaning one that provides a chance at foundational literacy*.

“In 2016, Plaintiffs sued several Michigan state officials, who they say are responsible for these abysmal conditions in their schools. Plaintiffs allege that state actors are responsible, as opposed to local entities, based on the state’s general supervision of all public education, and also on the state’s specific interventions in Detroit’s public schools. The state argues that it recently returned control to local officials, and so it is now the wrong party to sue.” United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

* Functional Literacy: “reading and writing skills that are inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”  Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, How to Support and Sustain Education Innovation, Phillip C. Schlechty

PEN America filed an amicus brief in support of the students’ position that access to literacy is a fundamental right. In response to the news, PEN America’s deputy director of free expression research and policy, James Tager, said:

“This ruling affirms one of the most commonsense yet profound concepts in society: There is a fundamental right to read. Literacy is the spark that animates the First Amendment. Without access to literacy, freedom of speech and of expression are just words on a page, inaccessible to broad segments of the population. In order for our democracy to function, every citizen must have the opportunity to fully partake in public life. As this case continues, we hope that the circuit court’s decision will translate into real change for these students who are fighting for their own right to a basic education.”


The content of this post is courtesy of the United States Court of Appeals, Wikipedia, Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, and PEN America.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Jamie Dedes:

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