The Other Branch: Outcomes of Gary B. v. Snyder

K-12

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A year ago, we wrote about Gary B. v. Snyder: a federal case filed in 2016 on behalf of students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). The case argued that the conditions in the school district denied students the opportunity to attain literacy. The essential question was whether literacy, and the necessary education and instruction to develop literacy, is a fundamental right. The judge granted a motion to dismiss the case because there was no such fundamental right to literacy.

A lot happened with this case in the past year. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling, and recently, two of three judges on a panel from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals delivered an opinion recognizing a fundamental right to a minimum basic education that develops literacy. The third judge on the panel dissented.

In the opinion, the two judges wrote:

The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance. Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history has led the American people universally to expect it. And education–at least in the minimum form discussed here–is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government. Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agreed to a settlement with the plaintiffs after the initial decision from the panel of judges. The settlement includes an agreement to propose legislation to provide at least $94.4 million to DPSCD for literacy-related programs. In addition, the governor agreed to request that the Michigan Department of Education advise school districts on how to use evidence-based literacy programs to improve literacy proficiency with special attention to reducing class, racial and ethnic disparities. The settlement provides financial compensation to the students who filed the suit and contains other stipulations such as the creation of the Detroit Literacy Equity Task Force and the Detroit Educational Policy Committee that will provide state-level policy recommendations to the governor.

On May 19, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to rehear the case en banc (before all of the judges). According to the court’s rules, “a decision to grant rehearing en banc vacates the previous opinion and judgment of the court, stays the mandate, and restores the case on the docket as a pending appeal.” Therefore, the ruling by the appellate panel was vacated. On June 10, the court dismissed the original appeal as moot  because of the settlement reached between Gov. Whitmer and the students from Detroit. The settlement remains intact.

What happens now? The impacts of the settlement on student literacy in DPSCD remain to be seen, but it’s important to note that there may be long-term impacts from the opinion that recognized the fundamental right to an education that develops literacy. Even though the court vacated the ruling and there’s no lasting legal precedent asserting a fundamental right to a minimum basic education, the legal reasoning in the panel’s opinion may well be influential in ongoing or future legal arguments concerning education as a right.

Author profile
Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States | aevans@ecs.org

As a policy researcher, Alyssa contributes to the policy team's work in various areas of state education policy. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, she worked as a legislative aide in the Colorado General Assembly. Alyssa earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Denver and a master's degree in public policy and international law from the American University of Paris.

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