(This post was updated with details of settlement)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) settled a historic lawsuit early Thursday after a federal appeals court’s ruling that students in the low-performing Detroit school system have a constitutional right to expect to learn to read and write in their public schools.

Whitmer’s office announced the settlement with plaintiffs in the lawsuit — known as Gary B., et al. v. Whitmer, et al. — filed on behalf of students in some of the lowest-performing schools in the long-troubled Detroit Public Schools system. Their underlying case was based on the due-process and equal-protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled 2 to 1 last month in favor of the students, a decision that sent the lawsuit filed against Michigan state officials in 2016 back to a federal judge in Detroit who had dismissed it in 2018. With the settlement, the legal case is over.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never decided the issue of whether the Constitution provides a fundamental right to “a basic minimum education,” and advocates for the plaintiffs were concerned the high court, now with two justices nominated by President Trump, would not uphold the appellate decision.

Among the things Whitmer, who was elected in 2018, promised to do in the settlement are:

  • Propose legislation during her first term that would provide Detroit public schools with at least $94.4 million for literacy-related programs and initiatives.  
  • Provide $280,000 to be shared among the seven individual student-plaintiffs to access a high-quality literacy program or otherwise further their education, as well as $2.72 million for the district to fund literacy-related supports.  
  • Advise school districts around the state how to improve access to literacy and literacy proficiency, including with strategies such as reducing class, racial and ethnic disparities.  
  • Allow for the creation of a non-governmental Detroit literacy equity task force — made up of students, parents, teachers, literacy experts and others — to conduct yearly literacy evaluations in Detroit and provide state-level policy recommendations to the governor.
  • Create or allow an existing body to serve as a Detroit educational policy committee that wil focus on the stability and quality of the overall educational ecosystem in Detroit. 

Mark Rosenbaum, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, called it “historic” and referred to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which said state laws establishing racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

“This is what the force of history looks like.,” he said in an email. “Almost 66 years to the day that Brown v Board of Education was decided, the Detroit community and Gov. Whitmer forged an historic settlement recognizing the constitutional right of access to literacy. By accepting the court’s decision that a minimum basic education is a foundational requirement for full participation in our democracy, Gov. Whitmer is acknowledging that no child should be denied his or her right to fully pursue the American Dream based on the color of their skin or their family’s income.

“While there is much work left to be done, today’s settlement paves the way for the State of Michigan to fulfill its moral obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to children that have been denied a fair shake for far too long. This victory is their victory, and in this moment the children and their families and the teachers of Detroit have taught a nation what it means to fight for justice and win.”

Whitmer said in a statement: “We are pleased to announce that we have reached a settlement that will help secure the right of access to literacy for students in Detroit who faced obstacles they never should have faced. This landmark court decision recognizes that every child in Michigan deserves an opportunity to obtain an education, which is essential to having a strong foundation in life and a brighter future.”

In their ruling, the appellate judges said the fundamental right to literacy was “narrow” but that it does include the skills essential for “basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties, most importantly participation in our political system.”

The suit argued that students blamed “substandard performance on poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials.” Conditions in the schools, the students said, had deprived them “of a basic minimum education” that allows a chance at foundational literacy.

Attorneys for the defendants, who were Michigan state officials, argued they were not the proper parties to sue and district leaders should be the targets of the suit. They also argued on the merits, for example saying there is no fundamental right to access to literacy.