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Higgins writes: “Few could dispute the importance of literacy. But children have no fundamental right to learn to read and write, according to a federal judge whose ruling in a closely watched lawsuit Friday left some disheartened and others raising questions.”

Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Michigan Judge Rules Kids Don't Have a Fundamental Right to Literacy

By Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press

03 July 18


ew could dispute the importance of literacy. But children have no fundamental right to learn to read and write, according to a federal judge whose ruling in a closely watched lawsuit Friday left some disheartened and others raising questions.

"I'm shocked," said Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. "The message that it sends is that education is not important. And it sends the message that we don't care if you're literate or not."

The ruling came in a federal lawsuit that was closely watched across the U.S. because of its potential impact: Filed on behalf of Detroit students, it sought to hold a dozen state officials — including Gov. Rick Snyder — accountable for what plaintiffs said were systemic failures that deprived Detroit children of their right to literacy.

The lawsuit sought remedies that included literacy reforms, a systemic approach to instruction and intervention, as well as fixes to crumbling Detroit schools. Earlier this month, officials with the Detroit Public Schools Community District said it would cost $500 million to bring school buildings up to par.

The City of Detroit, the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO, the community group 482Forward, Kappa Delta Pi, the International Literacy Association and the National Association for Multicultural Education all filed briefs in support of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed by Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based law firm that is the nation's largest public interest law firm. Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment Saturday, saying he wanted an opportunity to first speak with his clients.

Spokespeople for Snyder couldn't be reached for comment.

The ruling also comes as the state ups the stakes for third-graders. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, schools must begin holding back third-graders who are more than a grade level behind on reading assessments. Last year, just 44 percent of the third-graders who took the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress passed the exam; the year before, it was 46 percent. In Detroit, far fewer students are proficient in reading.

The state had argued in its motion to dismiss the suit that there is no fundamental right to literacy. Lawyers for the city, in a brief opposing the motion to dismiss, said city officials are "all too familiar with illiteracy's far reaching effects."

"Widespread illiteracy has hampered the City’s efforts to connect Detroiters with good-paying jobs; to fill vacancies on its police force, and to grow its tax base. Illiteracy, moreover, has greatly exacerbated the effects of intergenerational poverty in Detroit."

U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III, in his ruling Friday, noted the importance of literacy.

"Plainly, literacy — and the opportunity to obtain it — is of incalculable importance," Murphy wrote in a 40-page opinion. "As plaintiffs point out, voting, participating meaningfully in civic life, and accessing justice require some measure of literacy."

But those points, Murphy said, "do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right." And, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that the importance of a good or service "does not determine whether it must be regarded as fundamental."

A similar lawsuit claim was made in so-called "right to read"litigation the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed in 2012 alleging Highland Park students had been denied a benefit guaranteed under Michigan's constitution.

That constitutional provision states that "the means of education shall forever be encouraged," and "the Legislature shall maintain and support a system of free elementary and secondary schools."

But the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed that lawsuit in 2014, saying:

"The cited provisions of the Michigan constitution require only that the Legislature provide for and finance a system of free public schools. The Michigan constitution leaves the actual intricacies of the delivery of specific educational services to the local school districts."

The ACLU appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which opted not to hear the case.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University, said that "morally and politically," Murphy's ruling is "a disappointing outcome. It's a difficult theory to swallow."

But he said he suspects constitutional scholars won't be surprised. He cited as a precedent a U.S. Supreme Court case from the '70s that found education was not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.

"The plaintiffs wanted to make this not a case about funding or resources, but a case about the fundamentality of reading, and the right of every student to have access to that skill," Addonizio said of the Detroit lawsuit. "But I think a lot of people felt that this case was very closely related," to the earlier case.

He said the plaintiff's argument "was a very worthwhile argument to make."

"In today's world, the skill of reading and comprehension is more important than it has ever been," Addonizio said. "There are just so many opportunities that are closed off for people who are not good readers."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of students who attend three schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and two Detroit charter schools. It covered a period in which the school district was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. And it chronicled poor academic and physical learning conditions and a serious lack of resources.

"The State of Michigan’s systemic, persistent, and deliberate failure to deliver instruction and tools essential for access to literacy in Plaintiffs’ schools, which serve almost exclusively low-income children of color, deprives students of even a fighting chance," the lawsuit said.

"It's time to do something if we're going to be serious about education," Bailey said.

Addonizio said if Michigan officials want to address the disparities in educational opportunities for children, "we've got to do it legislatively."

He hopes the ruling will steer more focus to an issue with which he's intimately involved — an effort to ensure Michigan schools are adequately funded. A study released earlier this year called for increased funding for children who are more costly to educate.

"The decision in this court case ... just attaches greater importance to our leaders coming to grips with understanding the resource needs of our children, particularly in the schools that disproportionately educate children from low-income families, English language learners and children with other special education needs." your social media marketing partner


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+22 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-07-03 14:13
It seems like the US is totally committed to returning to the stone age. It economy is all about that Marx called "primitive accumulation" -- you just take what you want without any particular principles. Hedonism prevails in entertainment. And now Michigan is leading the way in the rejection of the right to an education.

I wonder what this judge means by "fundamental right" in the statement "children have no fundamental right to learn to read and write." There are civil rights but they are not fundemantal. There are human rights that are fumdamental.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that children do have a fundamental right to education:

"Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."
0 # CEB 2018-07-06 20:26
The United States funds schools in a way that is inherently inequitable, through the property tax system. Poor districts get fewer dollars because the properties within them tend to have lower assessed values, and fewer ratables. If you want to legally challenge educational inequity and unequal access to the tools of a good education attack the funding system which systematically cheats poor students who live in underfunded districts . This funding system is by its very nature exclusionary because it denies those who live within these districts equal access to a quality education. Discriminatory effect , not just discriminatory intent, worked to change the interpretation of what constitutes discrimination in housing and employment, why not for education funding which may be the most fundamentally discrinatory of the 3.That seems to me a constitutiional issue. I can’t imagine this has not been tried but if not it should. The future of these children and the future of the country is at stake. We cannot afford to throw away our future by providing a public education system that doesn’t educate..
+21 # Kiwikid 2018-07-03 17:42
Next step is to can tax payer funded public education arguing that education is an option parents can choose for their children. Or not. A bit like healthcare.
+6 # tedrey 2018-07-04 05:32
I can't upvote this because you might not intend sarcasm.
+2 # Kiwikid 2018-07-04 19:11
could anyone suggest this would be a moral thing to do? Tongue firmly in cheek.
+16 # librarian1984 2018-07-04 02:08
MI is the base of the Devos family, who seem to have made it their life's work to destroy public education while spouting dishonest platitudes about choice.

We can assume this refutation of government responsibility is making its way through the judicial chain in many other states.

How is it not considered illegal to destroy our institutions?

The GOP is going to decimate this country while Ditto Heads cheer them on and Democrats whimper in a corner. It's difficult not to feel helpless. If Bernie Sanders hadn't appeared I don't think I could take this. Every once in a while I've joked about moving to Canada but I think I would already be gone.
+15 # draypoker 2018-07-04 05:07
The disintegration of the US continues.
+19 # relegn 2018-07-04 05:49
Literacy in the United States and throughout the World is indeed a "fundamental right" and anyone claiming otherwise should be removed from his/her office.
+17 # Kootenay Coyote 2018-07-04 08:03
Judgement, ‘the importance of a good or service "does not determine whether it must be regarded as fundamental”,’ does not answer the question of whether literacy is fundamental; & the consensus of society is that literacy is indeed fundamental. Whom does this decision serve? Only those who wish to divide & degrade others for their own advantage.
+6 # hectormaria 2018-07-05 07:03
John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” This racist judge is blind to this truism; and, THE MOST SEVERELY BLIND PERSON IS THE ONE WHO DOESN'T WANT TO SEE.
0 # futhark 2018-07-06 23:55
As a retired teacher with 32 years of classroom experience, now in semi-retirement "subbing", I explain to students who express reluctance to participate in prescribed scholastic activity that we are encouraging them to succeed not only for their own benefit, but as better informed, wiser citizens with more developed intellectual skills and resources, they will not only be able to lead longer, more secure, and independent lives, but will also be able to help us senior citizens enjoy our "golden years". Or maybe the judge in this case figures he is never going to retire anyway...

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