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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