Do Students Have the Right to Literacy?

Mark Rosenbaum is a director at the nation's largest pro bono law firm, Public Counsel, and a lifelong civil rights litigator. For 40 years he worked at the American Civil Liberties Union and has argued three cases before the Supreme Court. In September, he led a team of lawyers in suing the state of Michigan, alleging that schools in Detroit area are so bad they violate students' right to literacy as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitutional.Lawsuits challenging school finance regimes are fairly common across the country, including in Texas. But those cases almost always involve state constitutional claims. No court has ever held that the U.S. Constitution guarantees residents of this country the right to be literate.Why have you sued the state of Michigan?The case arose in a number of different contexts. Where I work ‑‑ and before I was here, I worked for 40 years at the ACLU ‑‑ we looked at litigation as part of community efforts to make a difference in children's lives. Not surprisingly, the issue that kept coming back was education.What kept coming to us, when we spoke with children and their families and their teachers and community providers, was that children lack basic access to literacy, that they literally were unable to read and write and comprehend the text in their schools and, ultimately, the information that they would need to function in the world, to have economic opportunity and to play a meaningful role in civic engagement.The case really presented itself in terms of a national crisis as to basic literacy.What did you do after coming to that conclusion?We met with a social scientist at Stanford, previously at Harvard. His name is Sean Reardon. Dr. Reardon was looking at data collected by the federal government as to how all 12,000 school districts in the United States stacked up on a variety of variables--80,000 schools.Dr. Reardon ranked all the school districts across the country. All the school districts, but he looked in particular at the 200 largest. We started visiting some of these school districts. You can name them off the top of your head--Detroit and Cleveland and districts in Alabama, multiple districts in California, a number of districts in Texas.We started meeting with community groups with whom we had worked in the past. What came back was that children were not being educated by any definition that we would find acceptable for our children, and that often the longer they stayed in school, the further they fell behind.  Continue reading...

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