Educational malpractice lawsuits now possible

Is there a right to literacy?  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that students do. In doing so, the court stripped public schools of what had effectively been immunity from negligence (“Detroit Students Have a Constitutional Right to Literacy, Court Rules,” The New York Times, Apr. 28).  The ruling in Gary B. v. Whitmer breaks with decades of past decisions in which the courts have been reluctant to involve themselves in such matters.

A group of students in Detroit argued that they were deprived of a minimum education as guaranteed by Michigan’s constitution.  Yet in three similar cases in the past (Peter W. v. San Francisco Board of Education, Donohue v. Copiague Union Free School District, and Hoffman v. Board of Education of the City of New York), judges ruled that courts should not interfere with the professional judgment of local school officials in administering their systems.

It’s unclear if the decision will be appealed.  I hope it will reach the U.S. Supreme Court to finally clarify the issue.  Schools have a duty to provide students with a basic education, but there are mitigating factors beyond their control.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Educational malpractice lawsuits now possible”

  1. The Sixth Circuit decision here is a huge step in legal analysis — that is, recognizing a constitutionally-based affirmative right to state-education-provided literacy.

    Usually, constitutionally-based rights are negative rather than affirmative — that is, the right to be free from some type of govt interference. Even where the constitutionally-based right is an affirmative right (i.e., the right to counsel in a criminal proceeding), the right is often asserted in the context of protecting the person asserting the right from some type of govt interference (i.e., the govt putting you in jail for having committed a crime).

    Other arguably affirmative rights — such as the right to vote in an election — usually do not impose on the govt an obligation to spend $ (at least, not very much $) and/or really are not an abstract right to something but rather an equal-protection right to be treated the same as everyone else with regard to the “something” at issue. For example, the right to vote probably does not include the right to have the govt pay for a taxi to bring an indigent from his home to the polling place + the right to vote does not include the right to vote after 8:00 pm when the polls are scheduled to close at 8:00 pm but probably does include the right to vote after 8:00 pm if other voters in your neighborhood were allowed to vote until 9:00 pm (equal-protection right).

    Recognizing/creating a right to literacy (or at least to effective literacy education) probably gets the courts into the area of requiring the govt to spend a lot of $ and/or of monitoring the amount of $/way the money is spent. Usually, decisions regarding how much $ the govt has to spend (big dollar issues) are left to the legislative and executive branches.

    If Michigan appeals the decision, I think the SCt will take the case and reverse. Or, much less likely, affirm the result but on an equal-protection analysis rather than on a right-to-literacy analysis — holding that Michigan has to give poor kids in Detroit the same shot at literacy as Michigan gives kids in other areas of the state. But, that latter analysis would be pretty far left — unlikely that the majority-conservative SCt would expand equal protection that much.


  2. Labor Lawyer: If the Supreme Court takes the case and rules in favor of the students, it will mark the beginning of a new era in education because it will mean that teachers can be sued for malpractice. Until now, the courts have been reluctant to get involved in local education matters, as the three cases I cited indicate.


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