Chemerinsky-Caminker

(L-R) Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine School of Law, and Evan Caminker, Dean of University of Michigan Law School. (Handout photos)

Literacy rates south of 10 percent.

A dearth of textbooks and other key educational materials.

Overcrowded classrooms and unsafe and unsanitary school conditions.

That’s just a sampling of the jarring allegations in a 136-page class action filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of students in five struggling, overwhelmingly minority Detroit schools.

Two prominent legal academics—former University of Michigan Law School dean Evan Caminker and University of California, Irvine School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky—are among the all-star team of attorneys representing the proposed class of students, led by Los Angeles-based pro bono firm Public Counsel and pro bono lawyers from Sidley Austin. The suit names Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and various state education officials as defendants, and claims that the state is violating students’ constitutional right to literacy.

We spoke with Chemerinsky and Caminker about the suit. Their answers have been edited for length.

This is the first lawsuit to argue that children have a constitutional right to literacy. Why take this novel approach? 

Erwin Chemerinsky: In cases like Plyler v. Doe, from 1982, the Supreme Court spoke about equal protection being violated when some students are denied literacy. What this is trying to do is build on what the Supreme Court has already said. It’s arguing that the government has the obligation of at least minimal literacy in order for someone to function in society.

Is that why you decided to bring the case in federal court instead of state court, where most lawsuits dealing with issues of adequate education are filed?

Evan Caminker: Turning to federal courts and the federal Constitution is an effort to develop a new weapon in the fight for educational reform and educational justice. This particular lawsuit focuses on a core component of adequate education: literacy. The federal courts might be open to this kind of a question now in a way they might not have been 30 or 40 years ago. Hopefully things are aligned so that maybe this can be the case that proves to be a difference maker.

What are the national implications, should this suit succeed?

Chemerinsky: I think if this suit succeeds, it will be a model for suits in many other cities across the country. I think this has the potential to be the Brown v. Board of Education for the next generation. Brown, in 1954, said that schools could never be separate but equal. It’s time.

Caminker: I agree, certainly in terms of its potential. We’ve known for many decades that the schooling in a lot of areas, particularly in inner-city communities, has been abysmal. The details included in this complaint are horrifying. Detroit is as bad a case as you can find, but it is unfortunately not alone. I think we’re at a point now where federal courts might be more willing to recognize a) the importance of addressing this issue, and b) the appropriateness of federal court intervention.

What do you see as the most damning evidence offered in the suit?

Chemerinsky: The reading levels of some of the students as described in the complaint. At Hamilton Academy, in the third grade, only 4.2 percent of the students are deemed proficient in English assessment.

Caminker: I would focus on two things. The first is the conditions on the ground. The overall description you get is that some of these places are schools in name only.

The second piece is the assessment data. The state’s own assessment materials show that these kids are at the very bottom when it comes to measuring their literacy levels. In case after case, you find kids who three or four grade levels below their reading level. Once they are behind, it’s impossible for them to catch up.

So how do you fix the problem?

Chemerinsky: Obviously a key part of the solution is money. It’s how money is directed as well. I think the starting point is to recognize that every child has a right to literacy under the Constitution.

Caminker: Funding is a necessary piece of it. But the root of it really is making the state understand that they need to pay attention and they need to care about these kids as much as they care about the kids in Grosse Point, in Ann Arbor and in Lansing.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.