March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Michigan ACLU, Students File ‘Right to Read’ Lawsuit

Some kids in Michigan are literally fighting for their right to read. The state’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed a class-action suit on behalf of eight students in the Highland Park School District who don’t read at grade level.

“This is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit asserting a child’s fundamental right to read,” says Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, citing that the case is on behalf of the nearly 1,000 district K-12 public school students. “We represent these children because the state and school district have simply failed to teach them to read. We do this after a long and careful process of investigation that has made clear that none of those adults charged with the care of these children, under the Constitution and laws of this state, has done their jobs.”

The groundbreaking lawsuit says the state of Michigan, its agencies that oversee public education, and Highland Park Schools have violated students’ right to read as set forth by state law and Constitution. Also adding to the problem are “serious academic deficiencies caused by a documented lack of books, outdated materials, filthy classrooms and bathrooms,” says the ACLU.

Highland Park—once the home of Chrysler—has suffered a declining population and tax base, and ranks as one of the lowest achieving school districts in the nation. An independent reading assessment of Highland Park students found them reading between four and eight grades below grade level. In fact, less than 10 percent of district kids in third through eighth grade are proficient in reading and math, according to standardized test scores by the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP). By eleventh grade, when students should be college-ready, 90 percent failed reading, 97 percent failed math, 94 percent failed writing, and 100 percent failed the social studies and science portions of the 2011-2012 Michigan Merit Exam (MME).

“Highland Park students want to be educated,” adds Moss. “However, their hopes and dreams for a future are being destroyed by an ineffective system that does not adequately prepare them for life beyond school. The capacity to learn is deeply rooted in the ability to achieve literacy. A child who cannot read will be disenfranchised in our society and economy for a lifetime.”

The lack of basic reading skills for Michigan students violates state law, which mandates the provision of “additional assistance” to children who fail to read at grade level, as well as the state’s Constitution, which requires that “the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools” and singles out education as an important state function, explains Moss.

Writing samples documented in an ACLU report on district test scores show the extent of the problem. In a letter to Governor Rick Snyder, a fourth grader assessed at a kindergarten to first grade reading level wrote, “this is what I what to do when I grow up at Bussness laddy what And can you give my a favorite By helping me to work my way up to keep up Jobs.”

Another student, a seventh grader who was assessed as reading at the third-grade level wrote, “I go to Barber foucs school. I wish it was batter [illegible] in the clean bathroom. batter teachers and batter lunch.”

Michelle Johnson is a Highland Park resident whose daughter will enter her junior year this fall, but she reads between five and seven levels below her grade. “No one can walk through the halls of Highland Park schools and say that this is a suitable and safe environment to learn,” Johnson says, adding that she spoke at nearly every public school meeting and went to school with her kids every day. “But nothing I do will work if the district and the state don’t meet me half way. All I am asking for is a full partner in my child’s education so that she can learn the basics: reading.”

The report went on to say that the 973 students attending Highland Park’s two K-8 schools and high school were less proficient in reading than students across the state, with 78 percent of Highland Park’s third graders failing to achieve reading proficiency on the 2011-2012 MEAP test, compared to 38 percent statewide. In seventh grade, 75 percent of Highland students didn’t meet reading proficiency, compared to 40 percent across the state.

“Many children have never been given a novel to read,” Moss says, adding that school libraries are usually closed and inaccessible to students.

The ACLU of Michigan alleges that the district is further hindered by a lack a counselors and assistant principals, that students can’t study at home because they’re forced to share outdated textbooks and return them at the end of the day, that school buildings are often filthy, unheated (in the winter, students must wear their winter parkas and gloves in class), and lack security, making easy for vagrants to move in and occupy unattended rooms.

“No case ever filed anywhere in the U.S. has addressed a school system in such dire straits,” says Mark Rosenbaum, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and an ACLU cooperating attorney.

The lawsuit asks the state to use research-based methodologies to improve basic literacy skills that are administered by well-trained and supported professionals and monitored according to accepted standards of the profession.

“We ask that they put trained teachers in the classrooms,” says Moss. “We ask that they provide each child with the books they need. We ask that they provide safe and clean classrooms, bathrooms and hallways. We ask that they make a determined effort to help every child achieve reading and math literacy. We ask that they implement programs that are aimed at helping each child learn to read.”

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.

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