The obvious reason, as the court itself pointed out in 1982 in Plyler v. Doe, is that “illiteracy is an enduring disability” that will “handicap” children “each and every day” of their lives and take “an inestimable toll” on their “social, economic, intellectual and psychological well-being” for the rest of their lives.
Why is this so? As the plaintiffs demonstrate, many classes lack even minimally usable textbooks; classrooms are overcrowded and have inadequate temperature controls so the students often suffer from extreme heat and cold; classrooms are infested with vermin; the drinking water in some of these schools is often contaminated; the bathrooms are filthy and unkempt; and many of the teachers assigned to these schools are asked to teach subjects for which they lack training or experience.
In what is likely to be the opening chapter in a long legal saga, a federal district judge in Michigan must determine if a state can constitutionally provide a vast majority of its students with an excellent or at least adequate education while a minority of students receive an education that denies them the chance to acquire the minimum skills the court spoke of 43 years ago in Rodriguez.
Now the litigation in Detroit is raising this issue under the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court has never addressed whether disparities among schools would be constitutionally permissible if, as the court put it in 1973, a state failed “to provide each child with an opportunity to acquire the basic minimal skills necessary” for success in life.