The Right to Read: Protecting Michigan’s Future

December 07, 2012

Today we file a case on behalf of all the children attending public school in the City of Highland Park.

We represent these children because the State and school district have simply failed to teach them to read and, in so doing, have violated Michigan law. The decision to file a lawsuit is never easy. We do this after a long and careful process of investigation that has made clear that none of those adults charged with the care of these children, under the Constitution and laws of this State, have done their jobs.

The Highland Park School District is among the lowest performing districts in the nation – graduating class after class of children who are not literate. Our lawsuit, filed as a class action, says that if education is to mean anything, it means that children have a right to learn to read.

What does the most recent academic year tell us?

  • As of fourth grade, 65% are not reading at a proficient level and 87% are not proficient in math;
  • As of seventh grade, 75% of those in seventh grade are not reading at a proficient level and 93% are not proficient in math;
  • And by twelve grade when they should be college-ready, 45.6% are not graduating at all; 90% fail at Reading; 97% fail at Math; 94% fail at Writing; 100% fail at Social Studies and 100% fail at Science.

While the data gives us one measure of the results, we have looked deeper – into the actual learning environment in the district’s three schools and found appalling conditions. In most classrooms there is a critical lack of textbooks --students are only rarely able to take home textbooks and often forced to share. Many are outdated and in unacceptable condition. Many children have never been given a novel to read.

Teachers at Barber and Ford must make their own copies of materials at their own expense. Many classes have no or inadequate heat; students must wear their winter parkas and gloves in class. Neither Barber or Ford have any counselors or vice principals which makes it virtually impossible to respond to the individual needs of children, offer meaningful academic assistance, or work with teachers to develop effective classroom management skills and practices.

In at least one seventh grade class we learned that students had to sit on the floor or stand at the back of the classroom. The bathrooms are not properly maintained, often smeared with feces, lacking toilet paper and paper towels, and missing stall doors and other fixtures. We have heard reports that homeless men have lived in unsecured buildings without detection by school officials. Classroom and hallways are often filthy and damp from leaks. The libraries in the schools are usually closed and inaccessible to students.

As we searched to learn more about the students, we discovered that their files typically do not include assessments of grade level performance, current and post MEAP assessments, counseling records, attendance records and discipline records. We found files for students transferring from other districts or charter schools missing MEAP results and other information necessary to address academic deficiencies.

With virtually empty files there is no way that even the most well-intentioned teacher could evaluate a child’s academic history much less determine the best course of remedial action.

The people of this state have always prioritized the importance of education. Our State Constitution requires that “the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law.” Article 8 singles out education as a uniquely important State function and that “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The Michigan Supreme Court once stated, “[E]ducation is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Snyder, 421 Mich. at 154-155.  Years ago, the legislature passed a law requiring districts to provide “special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months” when a student does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade Michigan Educational Assessment Program [MEAP] reading test.

Yet, instead of implementing these laws, we have seen one initiative after another that has failed to put first the best interests of the children themselves.

When the district earlier this year could not pay its teachers, it entered into an operating agreement with a district -- the Detroit Public Schools –that is dealing with its own significant deficit and appallingly low test scores. When there was talk of dissolving the district, the only plan put forward was to allow Highland Park children attend a list of pre-approved schools, many of which are in the same tattered condition. Most recently, the State has announced plans to turn the district over to a charter operator before the new school year, a timeframe that arguably prevents the better charter school operators from even bidding on the contract.

We all know that the ability to read is at the root of all learning. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “Up until the end of third grade, most children are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade, however, they are reading to learn.”

When finally, this year, the district implemented a remedial reading program or two to catch students up to the basic literacy skills, it did so only for a fraction of the students, often without any computers or an insufficient supply of them, and little or no training of the teachers assigned to those programs. In many cases, students were simply put in front of a computer with no instruction from their teachers. This is the inverse of education.

Like many cities across the country, the City of Highland Park - - just 3 miles wide -- has seen many challenges. Highland Park has two K-8 schools and a high school with a total of 973 students. In many ways, the City has been the canary in the coalmine. Once the home of Chrysler, it has suffered a declining population and declining tax base.

Yet, in schools across the country with similar demographics to those of Highland Park, children are learning, often exceeding appropriate age and developmental proficiencies. They become lifelong learners with rich promise. A recent report, for example, by the Education Trust-Midwest spotlighted the stellar academic performance of students of all races and ethnicities at North Godwin Elementary School, located just outside of Grand Rapids. The Skillman Foundation reports, in its Good Schools Report, on “high performing schools” in Detroit. And prominent educators, like Bob Moses of the Algebra Project, have successfully worked with districts in which a majority of the children are from low-income families.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” The lawsuit we file today puts the best interests of the child front and center as the guiding principle to education reform policies.

Our lawsuit asks that the State use research-based methodologies to improve basic literacy skills that are rigorously administered by well trained and supported professionals and monitored according to accepted standards of the profession. We ask that they put trained teachers in the classrooms. We ask that they provide each child with the books they need. We ask that they provide safe and clean classrooms, bathrooms and hallways. We ask that they make a determined effort to help every child achieve reading and math literacy. We ask that they implement programs that are aimed at helping each child learn to read.

To those who say it is too expensive to do this, we all know that it is far more expensive to leave these children uneducated. This lawsuit is not about how schools are funded. It is about fulfilling the constitutional mandate that Michigan “maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law.” If that is to mean anything, it means that our children learn how to read.

See video, statements, statistics and more at the Right to Read casepage

By Kary Moss, Executive Director