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Editorial: Does the U.S. Constitution guarantee kids the right to be taught how to read? It should

Members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers rally in front of the Detroit Public Schools offices on May 2, 2016.
(Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

The ability to read and write is fundamental to a basic education, representing two of the traditional “three Rs” of schooling. And now a panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has taken that a step further: Literacy is a necessity for participating in public life and pursuing success. In other words, the panel’s majority wrote last week, a state’s failure to teach kids their ABCs denies students their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

“Most significantly, every meaningful interaction between a citizen and the state is predicated on a minimum level of literacy, meaning that access to literacy is necessary to access our political process,” the panel majority wrote. “Further, the unique role of public education as a source of opportunity separate from the means of a child’s parents creates a heightened social burden to provide at least a minimal education.”

The panel’s 2-1 decision in a case involving Detroit schools will almost certainly get a skeptical reception from the full circuit court or, beyond that, the U.S. Supreme Court, which in recent years has not been particularly sympathetic to appeals for equity in education. Yet the ruling, which reverses a lower court decision, offers an important new way to look at the harm inflicted by states and school districts when they allow significant numbers of students to slide through their school years without the most rudimentary skills.

As usual, the kids getting the short end of the educational stick here are mainly black, Latino and low-income students. And the gaps between them and their classmates are certain to be widened by the remote learning arrangements thrown together for the last months of this academic year and perhaps beyond.

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A similar case in California pointed to specific schools that were allowing illiteracy to flourish among most of their students. At La Salle Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District, only one in 18 students tested met the state’s English standards in 2017, when the suit was filed. Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the public-interest law firm Public Counsel, said at the time that he had met with high school students in South Los Angeles who couldn’t read or write well enough to fill out a fast-food restaurant application. The case was eventually settled for $53 million, with most of that money disbursed to 75 particularly low-performing schools.

But the Detroit case, also brought by Public Counsel, differed in this key regard: The plaintiffs brought their case in federal, not state, court. Constitutions in every state mandate the free and public education of students, and so it was easier to win an argument that California was violating its own Constitution. The Detroit lawsuit sought a more sweeping decision: that a halfway decent education is a constitutional right in this country. And for at least this moment, that argument prevailed, as it should. Meaningful participation in society and our democracy is impossible without the ability to read, and no child should be denied that opportunity.

It’s unclear whether the financial settlement in California will make the necessary difference. As the Public Counsel suit pointed out, many schools aren’t using the reading programs that have been shown to work with disadvantaged students, and the state is so oriented toward local control of schools that it hasn’t required or even pressed them to change, even after a state task force raised alarm five years ago about poor literacy instruction.

Usually, the proven reading curriculums are phonics based in the early years, which would make any change in reading programs a weapon in the so-called reading wars between phonics and whole-language based approaches. But learning to read shouldn’t be political; it’s simply common sense that if a school isn’t finding success with one approach, it should try another.

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In contrast, the Detroit schools recently adopted a new, more rigorous curriculum. Reading scores have improved somewhat but remain deplorably low. In 2019, only 12% of third-graders passed the state’s reading test. There are enormous shortcomings in the school system that have nothing to do with lesson plans. Too many under-trained teachers have been hired, and campuses are decrepit, rodent-infested and poorly equipped. Curriculum alone won’t solve the literacy problems of Detroit’s students. Only major investment will.

But the ruling in this case reaches for higher ground than hammering any of the specific inadequacies of the schools involved. A decent public education is more than just an important function funded by states; it is something that every child in this nation has an inherent right to expect. The United States has valued literacy since before it was the United States; the ability to read the articles in a free press was seen by the Founding Fathers as vital to forming a new democracy. The panel’s reasoning might not prevail in the current legal environment, but it speaks to a great moral truth about our nation.


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