By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A lawsuit filed on behalf of seven Detroit students on Tuesday accuses state officials of allowing high rates of illiteracy at several poorly functioning schools in the city, arguing it is a violation of the children's constitutional rights.
The nonprofit group Public Counsel, which brought the proposed class action in U.S. District Court in Detroit, described it as the first federal case to argue that American children have a right to literacy under the U.S. Constitution.
If the case is successful, it could result in court-mandated changes at some Detroit schools and encourage similar lawsuits in other parts of the country, Public Counsel said.
Detroit ranked worse than 20 other major U.S. cities in reading proficiency for students in grades four and eight in a federal report released last year.
The lawsuit named Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder and other state officials as defendants. Schools in Detroit, which have suffered from a falling local tax base, have been under state control for most of the past 15 years.
Snyder and Brian Whiston, state superintendent of education, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"We are concerned with the literacy levels of all children in Michigan," Whiston said in a statement.
Public Counsel's lawsuit said the seven children, whose surnames were not disclosed, had been forced to learn at "chaotic" campuses infested with cockroaches and mice and where textbooks were so scarce that teachers refrained from assigning homework.
"The books are broken, old, torn apart," Jamarria Hall, a 16-year-old senior but not one of the plaintiffs said in a telephone interview. "You come to school to learn and how can you learn if there's no books?”
The five campuses cited in the lawsuit are among the worst-performing of the roughly 100 schools in the Detroit Public Schools system, which serves mostly African-Americans, the lawsuit said.
"This is a case about ensuring that every student has equal opportunity to achieve literacy," Public Counsel attorney Kathryn Eidmann said.
The lawsuit, which seeks court approval to represent all students at the five schools in question, argued students had been denied their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiffs' attorneys may have a difficult time convincing a judge of their novel argument the Constitution ensures a right to literacy, said University of Minnesota law professor Stephen Befort.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)