The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some 1,000 grade-school children from Highland Park, near Detroit, on Thursday. The suit alleges that both the school district and the state of Michigan have failed to ensure that students can read at grade level, as mandated under state law and by the US Constitution.
The lawsuit specifically cites a “right to read” provision in Michigan law according to which
A pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade MEAP reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.
Three-quarters of the children in the school district do not have the basic literacy skills for their grade level, a state of affairs that is “severe and heartbreaking,” says Mark Rosenbaum, a University of Michigan Law School professor and ACLU cooperating attorney in the Detroit Free Press:
“The Highland Park School District leaves every child behind in its separate and oh, so unequal schools,” Rosenbaum said during a press conference at the organization’s Woodward Avenue headquarters.
“These children have no educational opportunities, and it’s as if they were living in an impoverished Third World country.”
Rosenbaum also told NPR that “No case ever filed anywhere in the U.S. has addressed a school system in such dire straits.”
While the lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight children, Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, emphasized that the lawsuit could have represented many more Michigan schools that are ranked in the bottom 5 percent and that Highland Parks schools represent the “canary in the coal mine.”
“I’ve got an 11th-grade daughter who .. [is] reading at a third-grade level,” said one of the parents, Michelle Johnson, whose five children are in the school district.
According to The Washington Post, the ACLU had some of the students tested by an expert; the results (pdf) are, in the words of Professor Rosenbaum “heartbreaking.” Students were asked to write a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder describing their school. One 14-year-old student who was found to be reading at a first-grade level wrote:
My name is Quemtin . . . and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.
Another student wrote:
Hi My name is [name withheld] and i go the school at Barber Focus and i would like you to make Better reading Books and cleaner water and supply for the classroom
School officials, educators and politicians have been aware of the plight of Highland Park students. In May, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to “fix” Highland Park Schools’ budget deficit which is more than $11 million up from $6.6 million, according to Michigan Public Radio.
Due to the immense deficit, the district has announced that all of its schools would become charter schools. Noting that his organization had been raising the alarm about Highland Park students’ low reading scores for years, American Federation of Teachers Michigan president David Hecker argued that “there is no evidence that simply turning struggling schools over to charter management companies will enhance student learning.” The decision to do so is based not on education, said Hecker, but finances.
But how to ensure Highland Park students of their “right to read” is up in the air. The ACLU’s Ross noted that, among many issues, the district lacks textbooks, student files are disorganized and buildings are in poor condition. As she emphasized, “this is not about pro- or anti-charter (schools), it’s not about funding, or pro- or anti-emergency managers” — it is not about many of the routinely-cited issues that plague struggling schools and school districts but about the children’s right to read, as guaranteed by law.
Is there a federally protected “right to read”? Or, in the effort to ensure that Highland Park students can read at grade level, is the ACLU’s lawsuit sidestepping more traditional educational reforms such as curriculum design and teacher training?
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