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Commentary: Right to read?

The ACLU filed a lawsuit yesterday that may change the entire conversation we’ve been having about education, in this state and perhaps beyond. Their focus is on the battered and impoverished little enclave city of Highland Park, which is embedded within Detroit.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s premise is simple. They are arguing that every student has a right to basic literacy, a right to learn how to read, and that the public schools of Highland Park have systematically failed to provide students the ability to attain this. Correspondingly, the ACLU and eight students have filed a class action lawsuit in state court. My guess is that they hope this will eventually reach the federal system as well.

The lawsuit is not just against the Highland Park School system, but against the State of Michigan and its Department of Education as well. The state is the real target here, and the plaintiffs really represent all Michigan public school children.

In announcing the suit, Kary Moss, the Michigan ACLU’s longtime director, said “Years ago, our legislature passed laws requiring the state to help children who are not reading at grade level.” She says Highland Park’s failing test scores and wretched conditions prove that these requirements have been ignored.

Well, the immediate response of those being sued was what you might expect; they reasonably said they hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet and so couldn’t comment. But what was interesting was that nobody flew to the defense of Highland Park schools, or even denied that they are failing miserably.

Highland Park, which was once a prosperous little bedroom community for Ford Motor Company managers, is now a horrid slum. Both the city and the school system are under emergency managers.

More than two-thirds of Highland Park students have left in the last five years; there are fewer than a thousand left now.

Nor does anybody doubt something else Kary Moss said yesterday: “Our state will never be able to thrive if children are allowed to graduate without the skills to fill out a job application, much less a college application.”

Without any doubt, that is true. But is there really a fundamental civil right to basic literacy? So far as anyone knows, this is the first lawsuit making that claim. At the end of this process, we may well find out, if this case ever reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.

We may also find out who in this state can most properly be held responsible if our kids are not able to read.

But the nagging question I have is this. Suppose the state hired the best  teachers in the country, and sent them to Highland Park. How can they be successful with children who are hungry and dirty and abused? How do you foster learning in a child who is living in a car or a homeless shelter, whose parents are absent or dead or in prison or on crack, or are functionally illiterate themselves?

However this turns out, the suit will only be successful if it leads to authentically better conditions for kids in Highland Park and elsewhere. Fixing America’s schools, however it’s done, will cost us money. But not fixing them will cost us everything, in the long run.

We’ll be watching this lawsuit for a long time to come.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst.  Views expressed by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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