A Landmark Case Just Affirmed Reading Is a Right. Here’s How It Will Affect Disadvantaged Communities.

Reading is a Right

Image via Unsplash by Gabriel Tovar

By Ileana Rodríguez

May 27, 2020

Is this Michigan case ruling a big win for students of color – who are systematically deprived of an excellent education?

It took over 230 years after the signing of the U.S. Constitution for it to be affirmed that in the United States of America reading is a right. This is what happened last week in the state of Michigan when a Federal Appeals Court decided that children in Detroit Public Schools Community District had been denied a fundamental right to literacy. What does this mean to disadvantaged communities?

Deplorable conditions in classrooms, lack of access to prepared and effective teachers, and poor learning resources and books have prevented students in Detroit from developing basic reading skills.

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Democracy assumes that people are able to be part of the political process; able to access information about issues and candidates and make informed decisions that are in their best interests. Voting, jury duty, even driving responsibly down the street require reading. 

Historical landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, which addressed school segregation and declared that education that is separate cannot be equal, have assumed that some foundational level of education is owed. However, no case had yet directly taken on the issue of what minimum level of reading is a right in the U.S.

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Now, Governor Whitmer of Michigan settled the lawsuit, in essence agreeing with the court’s decision that reading is a right. The settlement includes resources to advanced literacy in Detroit Public Schools, funds for the education of the students that sued, and the creation of a literacy task force. The largest investment would be $94 million to support the development of evidence-based literacy programs in Detroit, a piece of the settlement that would need the support of the Michigan Legislature.

The Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature requested the decision be reversed. The Federal Appeals Court then polled all 16 active judges who have now said they want to rehear the case. This raises questions about why Republican Legislators and Republican-appointed judges do not support the ability of eligible voters to make informed decisions in the ballot box.

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In some of the schools of the students that sued in Michigan 0% of students were proficient in reading. According to the more recent 2019 Nation’s Report Card, only 7% of Detroit Public School 4th graders are proficient in reading.

Among the large city school districts, the 10 lowest performing in terms of reading proficiency among 4th graders are Los Angeles, Fresno, Houston, Fort Worth (TX), Dallas, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore City, Milwaukee, and Detroit. These districts serve mostly students of color and in half of them over 60% of the students are Latino.

In America, low-income and students of color are systematically deprived of an excellent education. The case in Michigan affirms that in many schools they are also being deprived of the essential skills to be functional citizens.

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For over 5 million students in the U.S. English is their second language. So, is literacy in their first language also a right? Research shows that literacy in your first language actually promotes and supports literacy in a second language.

For Latino students who are Spanish speakers, developing strong foundational reading skills in their native language supports learning of the English language.

We will reap what we sow. Systematically depriving students of color of English literacy, and for some in Spanish too, is only to our detriment. We look to Michigan with the hope that the decision that reading is a right stands, unleashing a new wave of commitment to literacy for all.

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