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At his Detroit high school, Jamarria Hall loved the classes where students could share textbooks, passing six torn and outdated hardcovers among 35 students to take turns reading.

Hall loved those, he said, because in most classes at Osborn High School he had no books. Instead, students copied down whatever the teacher wrote on the board. Or maybe they had a printout from the school’s copy machine.

“How can you learn in that type of environment?” asked Hall, who’s trying to finish his freshman credits at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, three years after graduating from Osborn. “It’s setting you up to fail.”

A federal appellate court last week agreed and in a historic ruling determined that the students’ constitutional rights were violated by that level of deprivation.

In a 2-1 decision last week in the case, Gary B. v. Snyder, judges from the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students have a right to “a basic minimum education,” which the court defined as giving students the opportunity to learn to read.

The ruling doesn’t address the vast inequities between rich schools and poor schools, but it does set a minimum standard that states must meet in public education: providing kids with “a chance at foundational literacy.”

It’s the first time that a federal court has asserted that right. Advocates say the ruling could match Brown v. Board of Educationin importance and hope it triggers a broader crusade against unequal education.

The ruling applies to the four states in the Sixth Circuit — Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — and it could guide similar federal lawsuits in other states.

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It doesn’t mean anything will change immediately in Detroit’s classrooms. It simply gives students a chance to argue their case in federal district court, to try to prove they’ve been deprived of those newly established rights and to ask the judge to order a fix.

Students from five Detroit public schools, including Osborn High, brought the case, Gary B. v. Snyder, against Michigan’s governor and other state officials in 2016. They argued that “decades of state disinvestment and deliberate indifference” had left students struggling to read and attending “schools in name only.”

At one elementary school, third-graders had only picture books to look at until their teacher bought books to read. And at Osborn High, one student had to ask her classmate how to spell the word “the,” according to the lawsuit.

A district court judge threw the case out in 2018 without hearing evidence, saying the students’ rights weren’t being violated, even if the conditions in the five Detroit schools were “nothing short of devastating.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the idea that there is a general right to an education. But it has left open the possibility that students have the right to an education that is at least minimally adequate. In a 1973 case challenging Texas’s starkly unequal school financing, the justices said an education could theoretically be so bad, such an “absolute denial” of opportunity, that it might be unconstitutional.

In its Gary B. v. Snyder decision, the Sixth Circuit, for the first time, said that’s just what seemed to be happening in Detroit’s lowest-performing schools. Judge Eric Clay, a Clinton appointee who wrote the majority opinion, said teacher vacancies, building hazards and empty bookshelves likely deprived students of the opportunity to learn to read.

He wrote that was a right they were entitled to, pointing to the long history of reading “as a key to political power,” dating to the antebellum codes prohibiting slaves from learning to read and the Klan’s attacks on teachers who taught black children.

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It’s unclear, however, whether the Gary B. v. Snyder decision will stand. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could decide to appeal, either to the entire Sixth Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Or the state could decide to argue its case in district court, contending that the schools had met the Sixth Circuit’s standard. The state could also settle, as Detroit’s school superintendent and many local activists are urging Whitmer to do. A spokesperson said the state is reviewing the decision.

Helen Moore, an 83-year-old activist in Detroit, is calling for Whitmer to make a deal. She said the ruling was “some of the best news I have heard” in a half-century of organizing. She called it “better” than Brown v. Board of Education.

“Listen, here’s the secret: If you can’t read, you can’t do anything else. It’s the doorway to education,” she said. “Reading is the basis of freedom.”

While the Detroit case continues, the lawyers who brought the litigation say they hope the Sixth Circuit ruling inspires “a social movement” nationwide to demand better reading instruction in schools.

Evan Caminker, a law professor and former dean at the University of Michigan law school who worked on the case, said that Gary B. v. Snyder was “surgically precise” in seeking remedies for kids in “the worst of the worst schools.”

“This lawsuit is not designed to cure all evil, so to speak. This lawsuit is designed to show that there are particular pockets, where we would say it’s not just that the kids are not becoming literate; it’s that they don’t have the opportunity to become literate,” he said.

“The right we are seeking and was vindicated by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is not a right to a particular outcome. It is not a right to be literate. That’s not something our Constitution can plausibly support. It is the right to have the opportunity to become literate.”

This story about Gary B. v. Snyder was produced by APM Reports and reprinted with permission by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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