Judge Rules ACLU’s “Right-to-Read” Lawsuit May Proceed

June 27, 2013

DETROIT – A Wayne County judge ruled today that children in the Highland Park School district may sue the district, emergency manager and state for failing to take effective steps to ensure that students are reading at grade level as set forth by state law and Constitution. In addition, the judge set a trial date for July 22. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the class-action lawsuit in 2012.

This is a tremendous victory for the residents of Highland Park and all children in Michigan who deserve to learn to read so that they can read to learn,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “We will now have the opportunity to prove to the court what educational experts, students and parents in the district already know – the state has failed to fulfill its obligation to our students and provide them with a quality education, which is every child’s right.”

According to Judge Marvin Stempien’s written opinion: “Appellate case law tells us that the State of Michigan has a broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children. Although the legislature has chosen to establish a decentralized system of education which gives broad discretionary authority to local school districts, those districts, such as the Highland Park Public School District, are still carrying out a delegated duty of the state under Const., Article 8. It follows, then, that by simply enacting statutes that mandate specific criteria for the local school districts in order to carry out the constitutional duties of the legislature to encourage and maintain education of children, the legislature cannot abandon the education of those children to the vagaries of local school finances.”

The State of Michigan had claimed in a motion to dismiss that was argued today that it has no responsibility for literacy in Highland Park and enjoys “broad immunity” from the lawsuit because of the new emergency manager law.

Today, the ACLU asked the judge to reject that argument and pressed the court to deny the emergency manager and School District’s motion to dismiss the case after the organization discovered that a school administrator asked teaching aides at Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School to backdate Daily Service Logs to make it appear that students were receiving individualized assistance when, in fact, they were not.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a Michigan law, MCL 380.1278(8), that requires districts to provide additional remedial assistance to students who are not performing at grade level in the 4th and 7th grades. In addition, Michigan’s Constitution requires that “the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law” and singles out education as a uniquely important state function.

Newly released 2012 MEAP test results paint a bleak picture for the coming school year. 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 statute. 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 effect, more children will require special reading assistance this coming year than in the year that just ended. Yet, judging by this past year’s results, the state, district and charter company have no program in place to systematically deliver the reading assistance that is mandated.

According to the lawsuit, inadequate mastery of basic reading skills in Michigan school districts is a violation of state law, which requires districts to provide additional remedial assistance to students who are not performing at grade level. In addition, the state Constitution requires that “the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law” and singles out education as a uniquely important state function.

The ACLU of Michigan is asking for immediate remedy by the state, including research-based methods of instruction, highly trained educators and administrators, a process for monitoring progress, new educational materials and textbooks, and a clean and safe learning environment.

Arguments were heard today regarding the State’s and District/Emergency Manager’s motions for summary disposition and motions for protective orders.

The ACLU’s legal team includes Moss, Mark Rosenbaum, Michael J. Steinberg, Mark Fancher and Shana Schoem of the ACLU of Michigan; Jennifer B. Salvatore and Nakisha Chaney of Nacht Law; and Steven Guggenheim of the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Key News and Documents

Documents | Read the judge’s opinion

More Info | Read more about the conditions in Highland Park and our lawsuit