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Moss: Mich. Supreme Court shuts door on young readers

Kary L. Moss

Last week the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal in this state’s groundbreaking Right to Read lawsuit. In so doing, the justices slammed shut the courthouse doors to our most vulnerable children — those who cannot read.

Nearly one year ago the Court of Appeals ruled unenforceable the state constitutional mandate that the Legislature “shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools,” as well as a state law requiring literacy intervention for fourth and seventh graders reading below grade level.

With this decision, our state’s highest court has consigned children whose schools are failing to teach them to read to lives of illiteracy and the myriad challenges that come with it.

The ACLU’s case sought to remedy the shocking learning conditions in Highland Park schools and the unconscionably low literacy rates of the district’s children. To be clear, Highland Park is not unique, however, and the state’s failure to rectify the problems in a district over which it retains control via an emergency manager is a stain on our entire education system.

This ruling is particularly concerning in light of HB 4822, a third-grade reading proficiency and retention bill now making its way through the state legislature. Rightly recognizing the importance of early literacy and the need for focused attention to this foundational skill, a bipartisan team of legislators introduced this comprehensive bill that provides for vital support such as literacy coaches, individualized reading improvement plans and research-based reading programs.

But the bill mirrors the exact same language that our state’s highest courts have just held unenforceable. The Right to Read law, under which the plaintiff children sued, already requires that fourth and seventh graders who don’t score satisfactorily on the state reading assessment “shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.” HB 4822 similarly requires that districts “shall provide reading intervention programs” to third graders who do not achieve grade level reading scores on the state English Language Arts assessment.

The problem with this language is that the Court of Appeals held — and the Supreme Court just let stand — that children deprived of this legally-mandated literacy intervention have no means by which to hold their schools accountable for failing to provide it.

And fail they do.

The Right to Read Law was passed in 1993. Since that time, Michigan’s early literacy performance has sunk in national rankings. According to an analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest of Michigan’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, between 2003 and 2013, Michigan eighth graders slipped from 27th to 32nd in the nation on the national reading assessment. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this trend was not confined to low-income students or students of color. This same analysis revealed that during the same decade, white eighth graders in Michigan plummeted from 12th to 41st in reading and high-income eighth graders dropped from 21st to 31st.

What makes us think that the promises contained in HB 4822 will be any less empty than the law under which our children’s literacy performance has dropped so sharply?

It is imperative that the legislature take steps to ensure that its laws are enforceable and that the State’s constitutional and statutory obligations mean more than simply requiring children go to school day in and day out; rather, the State’s duty is to ensure that all children receive a quality education, regardless of where they live.

Make no mistake: the children’s loss in this case is not a victory for Michigan. When only 15 percent of an entire district’s seventh graders are reading proficient — which according to the 2013-14 MEAP data is the current state of affairs in Highland Park — our entire state loses.

Karyl L. Moss is executive director

of the ACLU of Michigan.