Is There a Constitutional Right to Literacy?

By George Khoury, Esq. on March 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's a rare situation, in this day and age, that all Americans actually agree about something. However, regardless of where public opinion lies, the federal courts are being asked to decide an issue of utmost importance and significance to the public: Is there a federal, constitutional right to education? A federal lawsuit stemming from the deplorable conditions within the Detroit Public School (DPS) system is seeking to hold the state of Michigan liable for violating the constitutional right to education for the DPS students.

While it sounds rather American to have a federal constitutional right to education, none actually exists. Though you might be thinking: "But, isn't education for children free?" Or: "Doesn't the government have to educate the children?" You're probably right, but it's not the federal government, it's state and local governments that provide education.

Equal Education and Semantics

The right to education, or literacy, as proponents have dubbed this fight, stands in contrast to the right to equal education established by the civil rights movement, Title VI, Title IX, and other legislation. While states and institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of race, sex, national origin, disability and other protected classes, when providing educational services, the US Constitution simply does not explicitly require states to provide education.

However, while the US Constitution does not clearly establish a right to education, state constitutions frequently do. Nearly every state's individual state constitution provides some sort of requirement that the state establish a public education system for the state's residents and citizens. For example, the Michigan constitution specifically states that the state will establish and maintain a public school system to provide primary and secondary education.

Right to Literacy

Proponents of the DPS lawsuit argue that there is a fundamental right to primary education and literacy that exists in the US Constitution. The argument is based upon the 14th Amendment. That's one of the most important Amendments because it provides all citizens with equal protection, due process, as well as equal privileges and immunities, under the law.

However, regardless of whether the court finds a federal constitutional right, there is a rather colorable argument to be made that the state's failures in the DPS violates the students' 14th Amendment rights as it relates to the state's own constitutional guarantees.

Those against finding a federal constitutional right to education argue that the actual language of the constitution never actually discusses, or implies, education as a right. Prior cases that have sought court intervention to assert that a federal constitutional right existed have failed to specifically address the issue as generally the courts find that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment coupled with state commitments to provide education creates an adequate remedy.

Although the complex constitutional issues are a fascinating academic pursuit, the reality is that DPS students have been facing extreme teacher shortages, lack of resources and funding, grossly inadequate facilities, and more. Schools are riddled with physical problems, including heating, cooling, pests, and literally crumbling structures. With any luck, regardless of whether a new federal constitutional right is found, the DPS will remedy their failure quickly.

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