Do Kids Have A Fundamental Right to Literacy?

Michigan Judge Stephen Murphy III recently ruled children do not have a fundamental right to learn to read and write. This long lasting, far reaching decision responded to a lawsuit filed in 2016 by Public Counsel, for plaintiffs, students in five of Detroit’s most poorly performing schools, including public and charter.

The case was called Gary B v. Synyder. It named, among others, Governor Snyder, Michigan Board of Education etc. The 136 page complaint, highlighted need for literacy and adequate education for all Detroit schoolchildren, as well as remedies for lack of appropriate facilities, class sizes, learning conditions and access to the proverbial level playing field for beleagured students.

I really don’t know where to start or what to say. It is so disheartening to read the backstory of the Michigan Judge’s decision that children don’t have a fundamental right to literacy.

I saw the story on Twitter about a week ago, have been knocking it around in my head until I found a day to cocoon, do significant research and then write what I think. So that is exactly where I am and not really happy about it. It’s just stuck in my head and heart.

I find it so ironic after forty- six years as a reading teacher at every conceivable level, I am compelled to define or defend why children must be literate. I do consider it a fundamental right of every child to learn to read and write. We are a nation of more than writing an x as a signature. We are better than that.

I spent most of today in fervent discussion about the various issues and ramifications of the original lawsuit, with my Ca. colleague and longtime writing partner, Don Werve.

We batted around each article as I Googled, hitting the mother lode with the original 136 page plaintiff complaint, “Gary B v Snyder”. Don’s opinion ended with the notion of “literacy as fundamental right under law or moral responsibility of a civilized society?” Beginning with children attending school, our grandchildren deserving the legacy of literacy and joy of reading. So, having to start somewhere…

Let’s start with the role of compulsory education. In the United States we have traditionally mandated Compulsory Education. While Principal I participated in Homeless Coalition, Literacy Boards and most significant, SARB, School Attendance and Review Board. “You Miss School, You Miss Out.”

It was our task to get kiddos to school, no matter what. I was still in Ca. then, and it was law that children attend school. Parents or guardians of truant kids ultimately could be arrested.

Today all states still have compusory education on the books, had at least since 1918, and I find no significant changes. Michigan’s law states that children must attend school full time, from six to eighteen and the law has been law since 1871, a long time. Compulsory education is one big piece of the lawsuit pie.

Detroit’s school teachers have for too long tolerated gross working conditions, with reports of books dating back to 1998, rats and other unsanitary conditions, lack of resources, large class sizes. Schools were placed under State control about in 1999, so to me, this mess goes right to the state who took over the school districts. They are responsible.

With quality schools, young scholars would have access to technology, a chance to excel. Watch those scores climb and skills grow. Literate kids ready to contribute to society.

I read where Gov. Snyder acknowledged many of the Detroit issues, but I found few or no remedies.

The State of Michigan, my home state, ranked last in a snapshot of 43 states in reading proficiency for African American children on a recent sampling from NAEP, our Nation’s Report Card.

The five poorly performing schools in the lawsuit were indeed underperforming. According to NAEP, (National Assessment of Educational Progress), in 2015, these Detroit schools underperformed to the tune of last in rank of big city schools, reading and math. Fourth grade African American children were 91% below proficiency in reading and math.

Three years ago I wrote a blog post about Michigan wanting to retain all third grade students not meeting standards in reading. That is happening in 2019-20 school year.

So excuse me, but I am confused here. Literacy is or isn’t important? Important to make children go to school, important to read at or above grade level to a proficiency, but not a right to do so? My head is spinning.

Ok, so let’s put a couple pieces together. We know from witness accounts, hearing from teachers and Governor statements that many schools in Detroit are grossly substandard in every way. Children cannot participate in a democratic society or find meaningful work without the ability to at least read and write, much less do math. How does that happen in such substandard schools?

Must schools provide the children’s basic education in literacy? Is it a fundamental right? Should they learn these basic skills at home, or as part of home school, of some configuration, in lieu of public school?

Schools are supposed to teach students how to read and write. Bare bones minimum. Or not? A fundamental right. Or not? Do children have a right to literacy. Or not? The complaint lines out in great detail why literacy is critical and how it is a basic right for all children. The Judge did not agree.

I understand why the Judge ruled the way he did, although it causes great angst and reflection knowing no bounds. I am sure he took the strict, narrow wording and conceptual approach that the Consitution or Bill or Rights did not specifically include literacy. Therfore, no fundamental right delineated, no fundamental right, no matter how important literacy actually is to our democratic society.

Interesting in the forty page opinion, literacy was mentioned as a necessary facet of American life. However, by staying with the strict consitutional interpretation no fundamental right is guaranteed. So the Judge may be right by a slim interpretation, most narrow indeed. And ramifications, a heartbreaker.

I suspect the ruling will go to the Sixth Court of Appeals and ultimately to the Supreme Court. Since the case was filed in 2016, I would surmise this case will go on for a long time and the outcome, one can only guess, with political considerations and a changing Supreme Court.

Educators, Board members, parents all have a vested interest in this decision. Do we as a nation of readers and learners believe our children have a fundamental right to learn to read and write? If so, who is to meet that right, schoolhouse or home? Or?

If schools are to continue providing world class education, funding must take a priority, testing must cease and as a collective voice we stand and say “enough”. Our children are precious, our schools, top notch. Young scholars can’t be tech savvy without fundamental building blocks of literacy. How’s that future ready curriculum looking without commitment to literacy as the backbone?

And of most significance, what kind of message has been given to educators striving to provide excellence in instruction, overcoming all odds. What message is given our parents and society as a whole about the lack of importance of literacy?

It’s one thing to acknowledge literacy has meaning and significance. It’s another to be right, in the letter of the law, maybe, since I am not a lawyer, but in this Court of public opinion, let’s take a vote.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

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