Experts Join Call For State Supreme Court to Hear “Right-to-Read” Appeal

February 13, 2015

DETROIT — As part of an ongoing push to guarantee a quality education for all Michigan schoolchildren, 35 respected education experts today joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan to urge the state Supreme Court to review a lower-court decision that said the state has no legal obligation to make sure students learn to read.

“Our courts have an important role to play to ensure that we are delivering the best possible education to our children when the systems break down, as is the case in Highland Park,” said James Kelly, the founding president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and one of the experts who signed on to an ACLU of Michigan request for the appeal. “The state Constitution and the ‘right-to-read’ law should be enforceable. And, to that end, this amicus brief conveys the interests of schoolchildren needing to learn to read but also the interests of the entire education community in having this case go to trial.”

In November, the Michigan Court of Appeals tossed out an unprecedented lawsuit filed in 2012 by the ACLU of Michigan on behalf of eight students attending K-12 public schools in Highland Park, Mich. The “right-to-read” suit maintains that the state failed to take adequate steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level. Last December, the ACLU formally requested that the state Supreme Court review the ruling.

In addition to Kelly, education experts who today joined the call for an appeal of the decision include 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. The experts’ group also includes schoolteachers, public- and charter-school administrators and college professors.

“These are some of the most distinguished professional education policy experts in the country, and they’ve involved themselves in this case because they’re fearful that the appellate court’s ruling encodes irresponsibility into our state education laws,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “For the many children who struggle to meet Michigan’s literacy baselines, this decision denies them the opportunity to obtain the intervention they need to reach grade-level reading skills. We have to re-consider this ruling for the sake of all of our students, current and future.”

In its December request for appeal, the ACLU of Michigan contended 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 precedent, the majority opinion contended that “judges are not equipped to decide educational policy.”

That 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 the brief, the education experts underscore the human toll behind the numbers. “As matters now stand, however, children enrolled in HPSD cannot fully realize their academic, civic, or economic potential,” the brief reads. “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. . .’”

Moss noted that the problems have persisted and, in some cases, worsened. When the ACLU filed the case in 2012, she reminded, 90 percent of 11th graders in the Highland Park district were not reading proficient. Although the district has since been turned over to an emergency manager and the Leona Group, a for-profit charter, test scores in the district remain abysmally low and the district continues to remain in financial distress. The trial court ordered expert Dr. Elizabeth Moje, of the University of Michigan, to evaluate Leona’s program of literacy intervention, which she found to be woefully inadequate.

In addition to Moss, the Highland Park students are represented by Michael J. Steinberg, Mark Fancher, David B. Sapp and Amy Senier of the ACLU; Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel; 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 the amicus brief in this case

Read the motion in this case

Read Dr. Elizabeth Moje’s expert report

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