Michigan Court of Appeals decides education is not a fundamental right; Courts will not recognize any minimum level of compliance with constitutional and statutory obligations
Eight Highland Park elementary students filed a lawsuit, by their parental Next Friends, seeking a ruling that the State and the School District were denying them a constitutional right to an adequate education. The students cited abominal MEAP scores, including the fact that of the 973 students enrolled in the Highland Park School District:
65% of fourth-graders tested below "proficient" in reading and 87% were not proficient in math;
74% of seventh-graders were not proficient in reading and 93% scored below proficient in math;
90% of high school students failed the Michigan Merit Examination Reading test; 97% failed the Math test, 94% failed the writing test; and 100% failed the Social Studies and Science tests.
Many classrooms lacked heat; the children were not provided with textbooks; buildings were unsecured and unsafe (to the extent that a homeless man lived in one building, undetected, for months); student files lacked assessments of grade level performance (no wonder); and the neighboring, demographically similar Inkster School District achieved math and reading scores above 98%.
On the basis of these facts, the parents sought a ruling that the HPSD was violating its constitutional obligation to provide free public education. They also argued that the school district was violating the recently-adopted statute requiring it to adopt a program to bring the students up to proficiency within 12 months.
The HPSD argued that it enjoyed governmental immunity and was not oblitgated to provide any level of public education; it argued that even if it violated the recently adopted statute, the students had no standing to bring a lawsuit. The trial judge rejected this argument and rejected the school district's request for summary disposition. The school district appealed. Unfortunately, the parents and students' cases were assigned to an appeals panel that included Christopher M. Murray and another conservative Republican ideologue.
The two-judge majority ruled that Michigan's Constitution contains no guarantee of a quality education, and that education is not a "fundamental" right. They held that it was not for the court system to evaluate whether the district had complied with its statutory obligations, and that the students had no basis to pursue a legal claim.
In a blistering opinion, the single dissenting judge excoriated the majurity's decision. He pointed out that our Supreme Court has previously held that "education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government." For the Courts to refuse to decide whether the school district was complying with its statutory duties constituted "abandonment of our essential judicial role" and abandonment of the children being denied their statutory right to an adequate education.
The dissenting judge pointed out that the courts of Sourh Carolina, Arkansas, New York, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Washington had all examined this issue and rejected the analysis adopted by Judge Murray. All had ruled that the Constitutional and statutory duty too provide educational facilitites mandated some basic level of performance: as the dissenter pointed out, they rejected the idea that the a school district which "shall" provide education does not meet its statutory duty "by its mere existence, regardless of whether a singe student receives any semblance of an actual education."
The dissenting judge pointed out that the majority cited with approval a prior case that had expressly invited critical students to base their claims of legal deficiency on demonstrable scores on pupil achievement tests--a burden which the instant kids had met. He also repudicated the conservative majority's suggestion that some students lacked standing because they hadn't yet been tested when the lawsuit was filed and its suggestion that the students could re-file their two year old lawsuit raising new allegations of inadequacy: as the dissenter pointed out, the Judges were inviting the children to file the precise suit they had already filed and which the majority was refusing to consider. "In fact, [the invited claim of insufficient instruction] is exactly the letter and spirit of the claim now before us." As the dissenting judge wrote, the majority opinion is not only wrong; it "mocks these children."