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Is Literacy a Fundamental Right?

On September 13, 2016, a group of Detroit parents filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and state education officials claiming that the “State of Michigan denies children their constitutional right to literacy.”

According to the suit, “Decades of State disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to the Detroit schools have denied Plaintiff schoolchildren access to the most basic building block of education: literacy. Literacy is fundamental to participation in public and private life and is the core component in the American tradition of education. But by its actions and inactions, the State of Michigan’s systemic, persistent, and deliberate failure to deliver instruction and tools essential for access to literacy in Plaintiffs’ schools, which serve almost exclusively low-income children of color, deprives students of even a fighting chance.”

Co-counsel Kathryn Eidmann noted that this is the first case in federal court to argue that there is a “right to access literacy under the US Constitution’s 14th amendment.” The lawsuit lists crumbling buildings, the proliferation of charter schools, school closures, insufficient staff, books, and resources, and the hiring of noncredentialed teachers as contributing to students receiving the most basic education. The lawsuit asks the federal court to provide “evidence-based literacy instruction in every grade level.”

The State of Michigan has declared that “no fundamental right to literacy exists” for Detroit students, finding that “literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”

According to Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, a law professor at the University of Richmond specializing in education equity, that should the plaintiffs prevail, a fundamental right to literacy would extend to all public school students in the United States. She continued, “The biggest challenge will be establishing what the scope of the right should be. If you say there’s a right to literacy, is it right to 12th-grade literacy? It’s important to set a robust right. If they set the floor low, it will be a very limited right.”

The lawsuit raises fascinating questions, and we welcome your thoughts. Do you believe literacy is a fundamental right? If so, how would you define literacy or a literate student? Do you believe literacy crosses all subjects and all grade levels? How would you define literacy in early childhood? The middle grades? Secondary? Post-secondary? Does it include diversity in scope of geography? Gender? Race and ethnicity? Sexual orientation?

We invite you to offer your perspective, either through comments posted on this page or in a blog submitted to lmcnabb@ncte.org. We look forward to the dialogue!