Is there a constitutional right to literacy?

An interesting class action lawsuit was filed in Michigan this week. Essentially, it claims the approximately 1,000 students in the Highland Park School District have been denied the right to a basic and adequate education because the school system has failed to ensure that students are reading at grade level as required by state law. It also raises the interesting question of whether that failure violates the Michigan Constitution.

In announcing the law suit, the ACLU of Michigan said the lawsuit asserts “a child’s fundamental right to read. The capacity to learn is deeply rooted in the ability to achieve literacy. A child who cannot read will be disenfranchised in our society and economy for a lifetime.” According to the lengthy complaint, two-thirds of all students in the Highland Park School District do not meet state reading proficiency standards. The school district, which is 99.6% African American, is among the lowest achieving districts in the nation.

The constitutional issue arises because the Michigan Constitution provides that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged” and requires the state legislature to “maintain and support” a system of free public elementary and secondary schools. The lawsuit says the Michigan Legislature’s adoption of a so-called “right to read” statute requiring certain levels of reading proficiency and special assistance if they are not met is part of what implements that constitutional mandate. It will be interesting to see if such language can be read viewed to create what is essentially a concomitant constitutional right to literacy.

Could such a claim succeed here? The South Dakota Constitution might actually provide a stronger basis for such an argument. It not only requires the legislature to establish and maintain free public schools but “to adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” In its school funding decision last year, the Supreme Court said the children of South Dakota have “a constitutional right to an education that provides them with the opportunity to prepare for their future roles as citizens, participants in the political system, and competitors both economically and intellectually.” (Emphasis in original.) It also recognized that educational results factor into a system’s constitutionality.

As in the class action lawsuit, recognition of a right to literacy would have to come in cases against particular school districts. Thus, while the evidence in the school funding case showed some school districts had high rates of students not proficient in reading, on a statewide basis, 84% of all children were proficient or advanced in reading. Still, the ultimate question is intriguing. Does the right to an education have an inherent, concomitant right to literacy?

The causes of these deficiencies [in literacy] … perpetuate a cruel hoax on children[.]

Complaint, S.S. v. State of Michigan

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