If want to read something that will make you gasp out loud, check out the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit filed last week against Michigan's Highland Park School District and the state entities that support it. ACLU sued the district and the state for failing to teach kids in the Detroit-area district to read. "The thing I whis this govern could do for my school is fix our bathroom," wrote one unnamed eighth grader who is a plaintiff in the case. The bathroom? Are you kidding? The complaint describes feces spread on the walls. It also says kids wear ski parkas and gloves in class during the winter. (By the way, give that student credit for using a difficult sight word like "could," but also note that "could" is taught in first grade.)
The case is potentially ground-breaking. The Detroit Free Press says it is the first of its kind to assert a child's fundamental right to read. ACLU built the legal theory of its case on Michigan's state Constitution, which requires the state Legislature to provide a free public elementary and secondary education. The complaint also cites a state law that says students who do not pass the fourth-grade and seventh-grade reading tests are entitled to special assistance to bring up their reading levels. It gets tricky from there because some state courts have said that education is not a fundamental right granted by the federal Constitution. The ACLU is relying for legal standing on evidence that the state Legislature considers literacy to be the root of all learning.
During the 2011-2012 school year, only 35 percent of the fourth graders in the Highland Park district scored "proficient" in reading, and even fewer seventh graders (25 percent) met their grade level in reading, according to the complaint. The school district did not provide the special assistance that 65 percent to 75 percent of the students needed, as required by law. The Detroit Free Press also points out that the district ended the year with an $11.3 million budget deficit.
Is reading a civil right? Is education a civil right? Can poverty-stricken school districts use lack of funding as a legal defense against a complaint like ACLU's? If reading were considered a legal civil right, would that make it easier to turn around failing schools? Are there better options? Or does illiteracy require drastic measures?