A federal appeals court has issued a watershed ruling that should be viewed as both common sense and a moral imperative: The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals says children have a constitutional right to an adequate education. The ruling could ultimately provide an important new lever for public education reform across America — if it survives further appeal, which it must.

To those who fret that such a development might require cash-strapped local governments to provide Cadillac educational amenities, no need to worry: The ruling doesn’t establish a right to equal opportunity for students in poor and rich districts, reasonable as that sounds. It merely holds that students in poor districts must at least be enabled to read and not be warehoused in facilities where rats and cockroaches roam the halls and students end up having to teach classes because of understaffing.

The existence of such conditions was among the shocking details exposed in the case, brought by students of five Detroit public schools. Among others: schools in such disrepair that students fainted from the heat in the summer and had to wear coats to class in the winter. Textbooks were in such short supply that teachers couldn’t assign homework. Teachers in such short supply that high schoolers were sometimes sent to gymnasiums to watch Disney movies instead of having class — “like a daycare,” as one former student put it.

“You’re sitting down in the classroom, and you see rodents in a corner. Or you can hear things crawling in the books,” former student Jamarria Hall told National Public Radio. “But the saddest thing of all was really the resources that they had, like, being in a class where there’s 34 students, but there’s only six textbooks.” Unsurprisingly, the suit alleges, “illiteracy is the norm” among graduates.

The Supreme Court last touched on the issue more than 50 years ago, ruling then that, because education isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, it doesn’t qualify as a right for American citizens. The Sixth Circuit’s appropriate retort is that citizens who are unable to read are unable to participate fully in democracy: “Effectively every interaction between a citizen and her government depends on literacy,” the court found. “Voting, taxes, the legal system, jury duty — all of these are predicated on the ability to read and comprehend written thoughts. ... Even things like road signs and other posted rules, backed by the force of law, are inaccessible without a basic level of literacy.”

If the case ultimately makes its way to the Supreme Court, the justices should consider what their predecessors of half a century ago apparently didn’t: That all American citizens have the right to participate in democracy. And that illiteracy caused by inadequate schools denies that right as surely as if they were being denied the right to vote.

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