Michigan students sue school district for violating their 'right to read'
In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, students whose reading skills are below grade level are suing the state of Michigan and their school district. If successful, the lawsuit could spawn others nationwide.
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“Everything we have done, and are doing, is to ensure that the kids of Highland Park Schools get the education they need and deserve,” a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder told The Detroit News.Skip to next paragraph
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There have been many legal cases arguing that states have not adequately funded certain schools or districts, or that students’ constitutional rights have been violated by being in de facto segregated schools. But this case takes a new approach by focusing narrowly on the core skill of literacy and a state law that addresses it.
The case is “potentially very significant,” says Michael Rebell, head of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.
Michigan isn’t the only state to have laws designed to bring up low-achieving students’ reading or math scores, and often these laws are not being faithfully followed, he says. “Now that we’re in a budget cutting era, a lot of states and districts are falling behind [on education goals] and this may be a wake-up call,” Mr. Rebell says.
The case “represents the progressive potential of the standards movement,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington. “If you articulate certain outcomes [through education laws] … then litigation like this is a logical follow on when students are not in fact meeting the goals.”
But even if the ACLU prevails in court, “it’s very difficult to provide that list of services [called for in the lawsuit] in a segregated environment, particularly an economically segregated one,” Mr. Kahlenberg says. There have been many failed attempts around the country to retain quality teachers in high-needs schools, for instance.
Some initial public reaction in online news stories about the lawsuit included comments about the responsibility of parents in ensuring their children’s literacy. One reason this district was chosen for the lawsuit was parents’ interest in getting help for their children.
“I spoke out at nearly every public meeting and I went to school with my kids every day … but nothing I do will work if the district and the state don’t meet me half way,” said parent and lifelong Highland Park resident Michelle Johnson, in the press release announcing the suit. Her 11th-grade daughter is starting her junior year of high school soon, but reads five to seven levels below her grade.
While the state has brought in the emergency manager because of a financial crisis, “academic results have been lost in the conversation about budget,” the ACLU’s Ms. Moss says in a phone interview.
In small communities around the country that have lost manufacturing or otherwise lost their tax base, “too often education reform efforts fall by the wayside,” Moss says. Stakeholders need to come together to find solutions fast, she says. “We’re graduating generations of children who cannot read.”