Is there a right to literacy?

posted at 2:01 pm on July 12, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Can illiteracy on its own be a civil-rights issue?  The ACLU believes so, and will file a lawsuit in Michigan state court on behalf of students in Highland Park School District who cannot read at grade level after several years in school.  The plaintiffs will argue that a state law requiring intervention to bring failing students up to grade-level reading skill creates a right to literacy — and that the state has to spend more money on education to meet the law’s requirements:

In the first case of its kind, the American Civil Liberties Union is charging that the state of Michigan and a Detroit area school district have failed to adequately educate children, violating their “right to learn to read” under an obscure state law.

The ACLU class-action lawsuit, to be filed Thursday, says hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District are functionally illiterate.

“None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs,” said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “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 . . . says that if education is to mean anything, it means that children have a right to learn to read.”

The complaint, to be filed in state court in Wayne County, is based on a 1993 state lawthat says if public school students are not proficient in reading, as determined by tests given in grades 4 and 7, they must be provided “special assistance” to bring them to grade level within a year.

But at Highland Park, a three-school district bordering Detroit, most of the struggling students are years behind grade level and never received the kind of assistance required by law, the ACLU said.

Does this law create a “civil right” to literacy? I take a very restrictive view of what constitutes a “right.”  Inherent natural rights come from the status of being born a free person, from the hand of the Creator, but those rights are not confiscatory in nature.  We have the right to free speech, to freely worship as we see fit, to own the means to defend ourselves, and to be secure in our own persons.  None of those involve delivering services to individuals, by means confiscated from others.

For instance, the right to free speech does not confer the right to be published, unless I own the printing press and other means of publication.  The right to worship freely does not mean that my neighbors have to build me a church, and especially not that the government has to provide one.  To the point of this issue, I have the right to seek education, but I don’t have a “right” to be educated, unless I’m educating myself.

However, we have created public education systems that deliver these services because we see a value in ensuring that each child receives a basic education.  In communities, states, and the nation, we allocate significant resources to ensure that each child has access to that education — even to the extent of mandating attendance in some sort of educational program until the age of 16 in most states — and impose standards to measure the success and failure of those efforts.  When those systems fail to deliver an effective education, it may not be a violation of a “civil right,” but it’s nonetheless a problem that needs a resolution.

And in this case, it’s certainly a problem:

One student in the Highland Park district, a 14-year-old boy named Quentin, just finished seventh grade. Quentin, whose mother asked that his last name be withheld, reads at a first-grade level, according to an expert hired by the ACLU.

When asked to compose a letter to Snyder to describe his school, Quentin misspelled his own name, writing, “My name is Quemtin . . . and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

Yikes.  Obviously, not every child succeeds at school, but those with no significant cognitive issues can usually be taught to read and write well enough to become self-sufficient adults.  Unfortunately, we know a lot of school systems fail at delivering that kind of education, and it’s not usually a question of funding schools — it’s a question of funding priorities in schools.  In a report last year, Michigan ranked 22nd in the nation in per-student spending, at almost $12,000 per student.  That should be sufficient to at least teach literacy, and the fact that so many in Highland Park district aren’t achieving it suggests that the problem is specific to the district.

Michigan, though, passed the law that requires interventions from the state when children fail to read at grade level between grades 4-7.  They have to follow the law.  That doesn’t create a “civil right” as such, but it does create a requirement for the state to adequately resource its education system to follow its own legal code.  The question of “rights” in this case should really be secondary.  Primarily, Michigan and its taxpayers should be reading these essays from Highland Park students and asking where the $94,000 spent so far on Quentin’s education has gone.

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chemman on July 12, 2012 at 4:56 PM

I realize that has happened, but it does not excuse the kind of parenting that allows a 14-year-old to be illiterate. That is simply neglectful. Red lights are “supposed” to stop children from crossing busy streets, too, but when they don’t, a parent takes them by the hand and walks with them. I never, ever in my wildest imagination thought the schools were responsible for teaching my children to read. That was MY job. That is EVERY PARENT’S job. And if our culture decides that isn’t the case anymore, then get ready for soaring illiteracy levels cuz “the schools” ain’t gonna get that job done, no matter how much money you throw at them. Reading begins at birth, the way parents speak to children, the example that they set, then come letter sounds, then writing letters, then forming words, then sentences. These things all happen LONG before enrollment in kindergarten. If “the state” in now responsible for that, then give the kids to the state at birth because those parents are doing nothing but taking up space, getting in the way, and harming the children with a neglectful lifestyle.

Bottom line: If a parent will not take on the responsibility of teaching his/her child to read, that parent is neglectful.

Rational Thought on July 12, 2012 at 5:06 PM

the children should be suing their parents- it’s the parents that are failing in their responsibilities to their offspring.

unless, of course, we are at that place where the government has taken over completely the job of parenting from actual parents. how very stalin.

and teacher’s unions and their leftist agenda ain’t helping much either but, at base, it’s the parents.

mittens on July 12, 2012 at 5:17 PM

If the schools are waiting until grades 4-7 to intervene, it’s already too late. I agree with Rational Thought … introduction to reading and reinforcement begin at home, and early on.

Mekei on July 12, 2012 at 5:23 PM

Just Wow! Normally I find the ACLU to be the problem, not the solution to public education – in this case, they have the right idea, but the wrong “charge”. Instead of asserting a “right to an education”, this case would be better framed as a theft of services; or something along the lines of breach of contracts. This doesn’t just happen in poor urban districts but in some of the best schools in the country.

Where else can a person be hired to do a job and not complete it? If I purchased 4 tires for my car and the dealer only put on 2, he would either have to correct the error or refund the money for the incomplete job. Yet in education, it is considered normal for a teacher to only succeed with half of their students (or worse). There is no obligation to correct the failure and they are paid in full regardless.

My children attended very good public schools, however they are blessed to be dyslexic. Rather than provide the type of reading instruction that has 100 years of documented success, the teachers placed the failure on the kids. Why would they make that choice? Providing Orton – Gillingham type reading instruction is hard work for both the teacher and the student. It is also highly successful and is the difference in a student struggling in school and being a high achiever.

Therefore, in spite of the high taxes we pay to live in a very good school district, I was obliged to spend over $100,000 in tutoring and private school tuition for my children to develop effective skills for reading, writing and learning. It wasn’t that we could “afford” the expense, but that my children couldn’t “afford” for us to make the investment.

Fortunately, we had the proper information to know that our children were not getting the appropriate education. While most parents know that something is wrong at school, they lack the knowledge to know what they should be changing. In the meantime, the education system sells them on the idea that it is the children who are defective, not the teaching methods.

2nd Ammendment Mother on July 12, 2012 at 5:26 PM

This is happening in a community that places no value on family, that has more children born to single mothers – mothers who have multiple “baby daddies” – and is drowning in self pity.

These folks grow up with no sense of worth, no sense of family and no sense of the responsibilities involved in parenting. It’s a multi-generational problem, with teen pregnancies only serving to perpetuate the vicious cycle.

I’m not shocked at all.

You can throw as much money at the problem, as you want – until the culture changes, this problem isn’t going away.

Hill60 on July 12, 2012 at 5:28 PM

Michigan and its taxpayers should be reading these essays from Highland Park students and asking where the $94,000 spent so far on Quentin’s education has gone.

To union dues to help pay for the re-election of Democrates.

mechkiller_k on July 12, 2012 at 5:32 PM

You can throw as much money at the problem, as you want – until the culture changes, this problem isn’t going away.

Hill60 on July 12, 2012 at 5:28 PM

First change should be to stop paying people to have kids solely as a means of financal support. That would help to start the culture change.

mechkiller_k on July 12, 2012 at 5:36 PM

“The right to learn to read” must have been made up by the same people who came up with “mood disorder”

Cleombrotus on July 12, 2012 at 5:48 PM

Is this a case for merit pay, elimination of tenure. A PhD is running the district, is he literate? He certainly doesn’t seem competent. Where do the board members kids go to school?

I have argued in the past that school districts should be run by executives not educators. Educators seem to have no practical sense when it comes to budgeting or spending money.

So how do these compare with private schools in Highland Park like: St. Benedict’s(K-8); Muhamed University of Islam (k-12)?

KenInIL on July 12, 2012 at 5:57 PM

ted c on July 12, 2012 at 3:00 PM

How far back is “way back”, ted c?

Cleombrotus on July 12, 2012 at 6:02 PM

In the ’60’s a bunch of idiots got together and decided that ‘peace’ and ‘love’ and all that other hippie immaturity was more important than responsibility, discipline, etc. They raised their children as ‘friends’ and desired to be the ‘cool’ parent that understood their children. Those children, who never really had a real parent, went on to have kids of their own and had no clue how to raise them, and made the same mistakes.

Meanwhile the public education system went to the liberals, the colleges went to the liberals, the media went to the liberals, and the hedonistic, instant-gratification, re-writing history teachers (refuse to call them educational professionals or any such nonsense, as literally any idiot can be a teacher) made sure that two entire generations would be victims, dependent on government for everything.

And now conservatives have to clean it up. I will do my part by home-schooling my children and ensuring they do not make decisions based on emotions but on facts. My children know that when they do something stupid they pay the price, and it is ALL their fault for being stupid. They learn, grow, and do not repeat the stupidity. They will succeed or fail based upon their own merits, not their ancestry, the color of their skin, their economic situation, who they know, etc.

I hate victim-mentality with a passion. I hate anyone who keeps others subordinate with that mentality. No different than a pedophile or a person who beats their spouse. All on the same level, all deserve the same end.

majordomomojo on July 12, 2012 at 6:06 PM

Any “right” to literacy would be closely related to the parental responsibility to teach your spawn to read. But the idea that rights imply responsibilities is racist, patriarchal, and generally a pain in the tookus for the responsibility-challenged. So…er…eat the rich!

ConservativeLA on July 12, 2012 at 7:28 PM

right? no! but i don’t like to live in a country where a good portion of my countrymen are illiterate! if there is good use tax money in education, is to teach people to read and write!

nathor on July 13, 2012 at 4:55 AM

“None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs,” said Kary L. Moss

She means the parents, right?

GWB on July 13, 2012 at 9:40 AM


RE: Picture on HotAir which links to this article.

Just WHO is the intended audience for the sign:

Illiterate? Write for free help

This must have been designed by the same bureaucrats who post those “Not a play area” signs near a creek…at eye level…if you’re a 6 foot adult!!

landlines on July 13, 2012 at 9:41 AM

Yet in education, it is considered normal for a teacher to only succeed with half of their students (or worse).

2nd Ammendment Mother on July 12, 2012 at 5:26 PM

Do you also believe all children can be like the ones in Lake Wobegone – above average?

GWB on July 13, 2012 at 9:47 AM

I grew up blue-collar and know that some people really can’t be taught, from lack of ability or interest.

Worse, keeping them around makes it harder for people who do want to learn.

Why doesn’t the ACLU lobby for an good environment for the eager, and let the sludge stay away if and until they want to learn too.

The whole thing is disgusting and I know the ACLU types: they live in self-selected ghettos and think those that disagree with them are genetically challenged: quite the little racists.

Denver Bob on July 13, 2012 at 11:56 AM

PLEASE!!! Tell me that billboard in the picture was a joke!

I only say that because the govt is ridiculous enough to buy a billboard asking illiterates to [b]read[/b] the billboard and [b]write[/b] a letter for help.

It could be a joke or it truly could be real!

jeffn21 on July 13, 2012 at 3:26 PM

Everyone has the right to be literate. In fact, no one is stopping anyone even that dunce kid that could not write anything from getting an education. He can go to public school(he’d be better off with school choice and going to a private school) or hire a tutor, but my guess is that he has dyslexia. Who knows.

Typically the problem is not the school or the teachers. I assume that kid has had numerous books on how reading, writing, phonetics, etc. But as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. If the kids do not read their books, do their homework, or pay attention in class, then it is not the teacher’s fault. Teachers teach, parents are supposed to parent. A teacher’s job is to explain things to the kids not force them to learn and babysit kids who have never been told NO in their whole life.

jeffn21 on July 13, 2012 at 3:32 PM

Yo, Ak-Loo–ya’ll gonna soo da You-nyuns?!

Olo_Burrows on July 14, 2012 at 5:36 PM