Opinion: Literacy ought to be a right

Paula Herbart

In late 2016, the Detroit News ran a story under the headline, “State says literacy not a right in Detroit.”

Think about that.

That story was part of a long running legal battle launched by seven Detroit school students who claimed that decades of disinvestment in public education have denied them access to literacy. Lawyers for then-Gov. Rick Snyder argued that there was no fundamental right to literacy for Detroit schoolchildren. 

If literacy is not a fundamental right, it should be.

The MEA strongly supports Attorney General Dana Nessel’s fight to guarantee an adequate education — including the right to read — for all Michigan schoolchildren, Herbert says.

Literacy is the gateway to exercising rights like free speech and citizenship. On a more basic level, literacy is essential to applying for a job, securing a place to live, voting and accessing our court system. In short, you have to be able to read to enjoy the unalienable constitutional rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Last month, Attorney General Dana Nessel weighed in, asking the federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to recognize that children have a right to an adequate education. “A minimally adequate education cannot just be a laudable goal — it must be a fundamental right,” Nessel stated.

The city of Detroit, in a brief supporting the right to read, explained the damage of not guaranteeing this basic right: “Widespread illiteracy has hampered the City’s efforts to connect Detroiters with good-paying jobs; to fill vacancies on its police force, and to grow its tax base. Illiteracy, moreover, has greatly exacerbated the effects of intergenerational poverty in Detroit.” 

The same could be said about many other Michigan communities.

The American Federation of Teachers, the union representing Detroit educators, argued in its amicus brief that when Detroit Public Schools were under state control during the Snyder administration, "The tools and supports necessary for student learning have been entirely lacking."

This is all despite a Michigan constitutional requirement that the state “maintain and support” our public schools. An MSU study recently showed Michigan dead last nationally in education funding increases in the past 25 years – and linked that dismal funding history to another report ranking Michigan 41st in reading proficiency among the states.

The state can move toward meeting its obligations by approving Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s transformational education budget which would provide funds for smaller class size, literacy coaches, technology, trained teachers and safe buildings Whitmer’s budget, which provides the largest education funding increase in a generation, will finally begin to undo the damage caused by decades of defunding public education.

Literacy takes on even more importance in the next school year, as the new third grade reading retention law takes full effect. It is ironic that many of the same legislative leaders that agreed with Snyder that there is no “right to read” pushed through this legislation requiring students to be held back if they’re behind on readings scores. 

The Legislature can right our course. They can start by passing  Whitmer’s education budget increase.

Going further, Michigan House Democrats recently introduced their “B.O.L.D. Education Plan” (Better Outcomes in Literacy and Development) which, in addition to other reading initiatives, includes amending the Michigan Constitution to define literacy as a birthright.

It is far past time that we get serious about this problem that plagues our state, our schools and our students. 

MEA strongly supports Nessel’s fight to guarantee an adequate education — including the right to read — for all Michigan schoolchildren. 

We support House Democrats in their plan to ensure the right to a great education and to define literacy as a birthright. 

And we enthusiastically support Whitmer’s education budget, which provides additional funding support for literacy efforts and finally stops shortchanging Michigan students.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.