Education Is Not A Right

abandoned Detroit classroom

Detroit Public Schools, many of them having been turned over to charter management, have a reputation as toxic as Flint’s water supply.

Throughout history, education has been a perk of the privileged portion of the population.

It’s still that way. The inescapable proof is the disparity in levels of literacy achieved by children who live in affluent neighborhoods and those who live in poor neighborhoods.

The US Supreme Court has already ruled that public education is not a fundamental right under the constitution (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez [1972]).

The state of Michigan made a similar ruling in regard to their state constitution in 2014 when the ACLU brought a suit on behalf of Detroit students. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected their claim that students have a constitutional right to a quality education. According to the court, the state constitution encourages education, but does not mandate it.

In 2016, another suit was filed on behalf of Detroit students. This one will play out in federal court, so it could make its way to the US Supreme Court.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Detroit, alleges that decades of state disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to the Detroit schools have denied schoolchildren access to the most basic building block of education: literacy.

The plaintiffs are students at four of the lowest-performing schools at Detroit Public School Community District: Hamilton Academy, Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody, Osborn Academy of Mathematics and Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. One plaintiff is a former student at Experiencia Preparatory Academy, a privately operated charter school that closed in June (2016).

The complaint defines literacy as “the skill to decode letters and words, the ability to read and write well enough to access knowledge and communicate with the world, and the ability to compose, comprehend, synthesize, reflect upon, and critique.”

It will be interesting to see what happens. If by any chance literacy is recognized as a constitutionally protected right, every state in the union—including the ones that boast educational superiority—will be in big trouble. In every state, US children attend schools in which they are not learning how to read.

Take as an example the state of Connecticut. Celebrated for its quality schools, in 2013 the state achieved the highest average NAEP reading scores in the country for fourth- and eighth-graders. Nevertheless, Connecticut’s poorest children are concentrated in 30 of the state’s 169 municipalities. In 2013 children in those areas scored below poor students in 40 other states, including Mississippi and Arkansas.

In the unlikely event that literacy should be made a constitutional right, children are still not going to learn how to read if they aren’t offered effective instruction. The schools are wedded to a method that is not effective with at least half the children who begin kindergarten.

It could be that our nation is heading down a path to a different form of government, one in which literacy for all is not required or even desirable.

However, if we still feel that we want an informed citizenry, then we need to do something differently.

Parents of young children need to take back the responsibility of introducing their children to literacy during the years from birth to five years.

Elementary teachers need to explore methods that may not have received sufficient attention in their college classes. They need to question such counterproductive techniques as “invented spelling” and iPads for all five-year-olds. They need to teach children how to hold a pencil and form the letters with care and attention to the sounds they stand for.

School administrators need to restructure the way reading is taught in the early grades instead of introducing “literacy classes” at the middle and high school levels.

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