ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Decries State Supreme Court Refusal to Hear "Right-to-Read" Case

October 02, 2015

Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, issued a statement today in response to a state Supreme Court decision to refuse to hear a case filed on behalf of eight public-school students in Highland Park who contend that the district has failed to meet its obligation to ensure basic literacy skills among children in the district.

The statement is as follows:

Today the state Supreme Court refused to hear a case that ruled against children whose schools have failed to teach them to read.   While the trial court decided that there is a “broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children” the Court of Appeals disagreed in a 2-1 decision which today’s decision lets stand.

We are deeply saddened and disappointed by this ruling, which represents a devastating setback for Michigan schoolchildren.  Our courts have an important role to play when the rest of the system fails them and today’s ruling dispenses with that responsibility, even for something as straightforward and important as literacy skills.

Last January, 35 respected education experts joined with us to urge the state Supreme Court to hear our case, filed on behalf of eight students attending K-12 public schools in Highland Park, Mich. This unprecedented “right-to-read” suit maintained that the state failed to take adequate steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level.  These experts included some of the most distinguished education leaders in the country -- Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation; Dan Varner, the chief executive officer of Excellent Schools Detroit; Shirley Stancato, the president and CEO of New Detroit; and Donald E. Heller, the dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University as well as schoolteachers, public- and charter-school administrators and college professors.

The appellate court 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 precedent, the majority opinion contended that “judges are not equipped to decide educational policy.”

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.

The realities of their schooling environment would shock the conscience of anyone who cares about the wellbeing of these children, their families, and their communities, and indeed shocked the conscience of the Court of Appeals, which in its opinion acknowledged ‘...there is little genuine controversy that the district defendants have abysmally failed their pupils...'”