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Judge Tosses Literacy Lawsuit in Detroit

By Colleen Patrice Clark
 | Jul 02, 2018

rick-snyderAn unprecedented class action lawsuit filed on behalf of students in Detroit, MI, concerning their lack of access to equitable literacy instruction has been tossed by a U.S. District Court judge.

The decision leaves ILA—one of several organizations to cosponsor an amicus brief in support of the litigation, which essentially declared literacy a constitutional right—disappointed, but with a renewed sense of purpose for why we must continue our mission to ensure equitable access to literacy for all students.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, five students from the lowest-performing public schools in Detroit, alleged they have been denied access to literacy by being deprived of evidence-based instruction. They claimed that the school conditions to which they are subjected prevent literacy learning and therefore are in violation of their rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They alleged that these conditions are the result of decades of neglectful administration, inadequate support, and poor oversight on the part of state officials.

The ruling, filed on June 29, questioned whether it is the responsibility of states to provide a “minimally adequate education” that ensures a child attains literacy.

In the written opinion of Judge Stephen Murphy III, the answer was no, it is not.

ILA, however, strongly disagrees.

“The answer should, unquestionably, be yes,” argues Bernadette Dwyer, president of the ILA Board of Directors. “The right to read is a basic, inalienable human right. The ability to read enables an individual to function in society. It enriches the personal, social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of the individual.”

The court agreed with that part.

In his ruling, Murphy acknowledged that literacy is of “incalculable importance.”

“As plaintiffs point out, voting, participating meaningfully in civic life, and accessing justice require some measure of literacy….Simply finding one’s way through many aspects of ordinary life stands as an obstacle to one who cannot read,” Murphy wrote. “But those points do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right.”

The judge pointed to a history of cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized that the importance of a good or service “does not determine whether it must be regarded as fundamental.” Further, he stated that the plaintiffs failed to prove deliberate actions by the defendants—the governor of Michigan and several state education officials—that resulted in the current state of Detroit schools.

Dwyer stresses that, despite the ruling, “we must continue to work toward the goal of an equitable education for all. Issues of equity, equality of opportunity, quality of instruction, and social justice should permeate all that we do to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn to read.”

Douglas Fisher, immediate past president of the ILA Board of Directors, agrees.

“We stand with the schoolchildren of Detroit in expressing our profound disappointment in the court’s ruling,” he says. “There is no quality education without literacy. We know this, and we also know that much work remains when it comes to delivering on equitable education. This decision only reinforces the work that lies ahead for literacy educators and advocates.”

ILA had signed on to an amicus curiae brief in this case in 2017 to support the plaintiffs’ argument that literacy is a constitutional right, along with Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society in education, and the National Association for Multicultural Education.

The plaintiffs announced their plan to appeal on Monday, so this is unlikely to mark the end in Detroit—or the end of defining literacy as a constitutional right. In fact, a similar lawsuit was recently filed in California.

“Though disappointing, the ruling is hardly the end of this controversy,” says Dan Mangan, ILA’s director of Public Affairs, pointing out that literacy was a fundamental presence in the establishment of our country. “Although the founding fathers did not explicitly address education as a constitutional priority, they created a new republic by drafting documents whose content and stirring preambles were intended to inspire and guide generations to come.

“Of course, these treasures and the entire Anglo-American edifice of written law mean nothing to the illiterate,” he continues. “We look for the day to come when the skills that brought forth such eloquence in Thomas Jefferson and others are fully and finally recognized as the indispensable frame for our identity as a people, and as a necessary component of our guaranteed rights.”

Click here to read the full court decision.

Colleen Patrice Clark is the managing editor of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.


Leave a comment
  1. Michele Boutwell | Aug 21, 2018
    Does this mean that the ILA will no longer support literacy instruction that is not evidence based?
  2. Jane E Peterson | Aug 01, 2018

    Rephrase the position statement:

    Use "Basic Educational Literacy."



    Then if you are serious, define that term with a numerical value:  No more than one-and-a-half years below the standard for literacy at the grade level.


  3. Deborah Corvelo | Jul 09, 2018
    Interesting article - I'd like to take this idea in a bit of a different direction.  Where are the rights of children in a classroom where they are ready and able to learn, a competent teacher is present, but a small select few are such total daily disruptions that the quality and amount of learning is less than it could be?  When administration allows the disruptions and many parents don't feel like they have a voice - is this a situation that could be pursued legally?  I feel for so many students in my urban district whose education is short changed because of disruptive students.  Teachers are sent to training and workshops on how to deal with difficult students but when parents and district leaders are not supportive, it creates a variety of problems.  The behaviors are inadvertently rewarded and therefore continues.  No one seems to have an answer for me about the rights of the students and their right to an education without the interference from disruptive students.

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