ACLU Asks Michigan Supreme Court to Hear “Right to Read” Appeal

December 18, 2014

DETROIT — In an ongoing effort to compel state officials to enforce Michigan children’s right to read under state law and the Constitution, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today asked the state Supreme Court to review a lower court’s decision that Michigan has no legal obligation to ensure that public-school students are literate.

“We refuse to simply stand by as our government shirks its responsibility to provide quality education to our most vulnerable children,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Literacy is the most fundamental tool for acquiring knowledge and skill. Without the ability to read proficiently, most of our children are guaranteed to be relegated to a life of poverty, misery and struggle.”

The organization is challenging a November decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals to toss out an unprecedented lawsuit it filed on behalf of eight students attending K-12 public schools in Highland Park, Mich. Filed in July 2012, the “right-to-read” suit maintains that the state failed to take adequate steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level.

In its request to appeal today, the ACLU of Michigan contends that the appellate court erred when it concluded that education provisions in state law and the Constitution weren’t legally enforceable and that they placed no actual obligations on state officials to provide adequate literacy instruction to students.

The appellate court also said that the state has no enforceable duty to ensure that schoolchildren actually learn fundamental skills such as reading – but rather is obligated only to establish and finance a public education system, regardless of the quality of that system. Waving off decades of historic judicial impact on educational reform, the majority opinion contended that “judges are not equipped to decide educational policy.”

“In refusing to hold the state accountable in any way for a school district that continues to fail its students, the court is essentially turning its back on the children who most need our help,” said Moss.

In addition, the 2-1 appeals court decision reversed an earlier circuit court ruling that there is a “broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children.”

Dissenting from the majority opinion, Judge Douglas Shapiro accused the Court of Appeals of “abandonment of our essential judicial roles, that of enforcement of the rule of law even where the defendants are governmental entities, and of protecting the rights of all who live within Michigan’s borders, particularly those, like children, who do not have a voice in the political process.”

MEAP test results from 2012 painted a bleak picture for Highland Park students and parents. In the 2013-14 year, no fewer than 78.9 percent of current fourth graders and 73 percent of current seventh graders will require the special intervention mandated by state law. By contrast, 65 percent of then-fourth graders and 75 percent of then-seventh graders required statutory intervention entering the 2012-13 school year.

In its brief, the ACLU of Michigan underscores the human toll behind the numbers. “These are not just statistics,” the brief reads. “There are schoolchildren behind these statistics who are being relegated to illiteracy, and therefore effectively denied the opportunity to become productive members of society. Because the ability to read is so central to the learning process, the harm to these children and others like them is immediate and irremediable.”

Kary Moss noted that the problems have persisted and, in some cases, worsened. “When we filed this case two years ago, we were representing eight children in a district where 90 percent of 11th-grade students were not reading proficient,” said Moss. “More than two years later, families have fled. The district — placed under emergency control and turned over to a for-profit charter called The Leona Group — is still in deficit. And test scores remain abysmally low.”

In addition to Moss, the Highland Park students are represented by Mark Rosenbaum, Michael J. Steinberg, Mark Fancher, David B. Sapp and Amy Senier of the ACLU; Jennifer B. Salvatore, Edward Alan Macey and Nakisha N. Chaney of Nacht Law; and Steven D. Guggenheim, Joni Ostler and Doru Gavril of the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Read our request for appeal

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