Put a right to literacy on the ballot

Kary Moss

When it come to providing an equitable or even adequate education to the children of Michigan, one thing is beyond dispute: things must change.

According to a recent ACLU of Michigan report: “Michigan students once outperformed the national average, but today the opposite is true. Michigan’s schools now occupy the bottom tiers of numerous national rankings for both academic achievement and educational spending.”

A study by The Education Trust placed Michigan 42nd out of 47 states in funding equity, making it one of the most regressive school-funding states in the nation.

In 2012, we asked kids in the Highland Park public school system to provide us with writing samples so that we could gauge their level of competence. Here’s what one eighth-grader turned over:

“The thing I whis the govern could do for my school is fix our bathroom, get us new computers, help us get more books, and more learning programs.”

That was one of the better samples. We saw children in upper grade levels who had difficulty just writing their names.

Perhaps the federal lawsuit, just filed on behalf of Detroit students, and which asserts that the U.S. Constitution provides a guarantee that every child in America has a fundamental right of access to literacy—a premise that has as its foundation the essential argument made in our 2012 case—will ultimately prove to be successful.

But courts cannot be relied upon to always do not only the right thing, but also the just thing.

One possible solution is for Michiganians to place a referendum on the ballot that establishes a fundamental right to an education, leaving no room for doubt that the state is obligated to provide every child with a high-quality education.

■We must fix Michigan’s school aid distribution policy which does not reflect the differential cost of expensive special-needs students, regional cost-of-living variations, declining enrollment costs, or the cost of building and maintaining school facilities;

■We must fix school choice policies which give charter schools a strong incentive to enroll low-cost students and leave traditional school districts poorly equipped to help children with special needs or provide all children with the most basic services;

■We must embrace the need for high quality literacy intervention and a motivated, rewarded, talented, credentialed, and stable teaching force.

The status quo is failing not only our children, but all of us. Profound, extensive, and meaningful change is absolutely necessary, and must be demanded.

The future of our children and the future of our state depend on it.

Kary Moss is executive director of ACLU of Michigan.