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ACLU sues state, Highland Park schools over 'right to read'

The Michigan ACLU has filed what it calls a “groundbreaking” lawsuitagainst the Highland Park school district, and state education officials.

At issue: The state’s responsibility to make sure every child can read.

State law says school districts must provide any special assistance “reasonably necessary” to bring a child up to grade level in reading.

That law is little-known, and according to the ACLU, it's never been enforced.

But the civil rights group says it’s now time to start. They’ve taken on the Highland Park school district, which they've singled out for its dismal test scores and school conditions.

"No case ever filed anywhere in the U.S. has addressed a school system in such dire straits," said Mark Rosenbaum, a University of Michigan Law School Professor working on behalf of the ACLU.

The suit was filed on behalf of parents like Michelle Johnson. She has six children in Highland Park schools, including a high school-age daughter who still reads at a grade-school level.

“I need help as a parent," Johnson said. "And I’m here today to say it’s time for the state to step up, and give my child what she needs.”

Highland Park schools already have a state-appointed emergency manager, who wants to turn them over to a charter operator in the fall.

But Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss says none of the proposed remedies addresses the core problems.

“None of the reforms that are underway right now, though, deal with the serious academic deficiencies in this district, and are designed to help bring these children up to grade level," Moss said. "Despite the state law that said individualized reading instruction is required, nothing has happened in this district.”

In the last school year, 90% of Highland Park eleventh-graders were deemed less than proficient in reading. 97% weren’t proficient in math.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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