ACLU: Students denied ‘right to learn to read’

Michigan and a small Detroit-area district are violating students’ “right to learn to read,”, charges an ACLU lawsuit. A 1993 state law says schools must provide “special assistance” to bring students to grade level if they’re not proficient in reading on fourth-grade and seventh-grade tests.In Highland Park, a three-school district,   three-quarters of students read below grade level — often many years below — but haven’t received extra help, the ACLU charged.

One student in the Highland Park district, a 14-year-old boy named Quentin, just finished seventh grade. Quentin, whose mother asked that his last name be withheld, reads at a first-grade level, according to an expert hired by the ACLU.

When asked to compose a letter to Snyder to describe his school, Quentin misspelled his own name, writing, “My name is Quemtin .?.?. and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

The district, which is running an $11 million deficit, was taken over by the state earlier this year. In June, “officials announced plans to turn the district’s three schools, with fewer than 1,000 students, over to a charter operator, starting this fall,” reports the Detroit News. That’s a very rapid turnaround.

The Highland Park district is among the lowest performing in the state: In 2011, 10 percent of third-graders in the district were proficient in math, and 22 percent were proficient in reading.


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  1. Highland Park was 93.5% Black and 3.2% White in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.  The population has been falling and the per-capita income is about half the Michigan average.

    It’s likely that anyone able to leave Highland Park has left.  The people remaining are those without prospects or the intelligence to seek better surroundings.  It’s not surprising that they would have a great many children like Quentin.

  2. And the real divide in education is not whether or not you agree with what Engineer-Poet wrote, but whether or not you feel like–given those factors–it’s okay and, you know, understandable that Quentin arrives at 8th grade reading on a 1st grade level.

    • What matters is if there’s anything government can do about it, regardless of how many consent decrees the ACLU obtains.

      If there was a serious crackdown on crime and associated disorderly behavior in Highland Park, it might be possible to get some higher-functioning, more affluent people to move back and improve the schools.  Unfortunately the sort of policing needed for this also has “discriminatory” outcomes, and the ACLU wouldn’t like it any better than 7th graders with 1st grade skills.

      • The schools suck not because the parents are stupid or criminal or lazy but because there’s not any good reason for the schools to be any other way.

        The real problem is that the direction public education inevitably takes in the absence of unusual influences to the contrary is down hill.

        That unusual influence can be a coterie of school board members who manage to keep from being diverted from a relentless pressure to excell educationally by all the factors related to running a school district, at the level of the district or it can be a principal who manages to maintain the same focus within their area of influence.

        Whatever the scope or office though it’s the unusually lucky, forceful, focused individual who prevents the organization under their control from defaulting to the graceful glide towards the lowest possible performance.

        Sadly for Highland Park they’re a pretty standard issue poor, urban school district which means they’re thumping along at about as rotten a level of performance as is possible.

    • How about those of us who blame Quentin and his parents as least as much as we blame the schools and teachers?

      • If you’re waiting for the ACLU to sue them, you’ll wait a long, long time.

        • Well yes…. because, even assuming there were a cause of action, there is no constitutional or civil liberties issue involved. Thanks for that… insight.

          Odds are, Quentin’s parents have a level of educational achievement not much different from Quentin’s.

  3. If that many children are failing at reading, it would make sense to use Direct Instruction (through carefully trained specialists, not the regular classroom teachers) and group the children by reading level.

  4. And the other divide is whether or not you believe wide-spread lack of functional literacy and the persistence of downwardly mobile communities are ones that only affect folks affiliated with the ACLU.

  5. While I agree it’s one of the most important things in life, a moral imperative and all but there’s no guaranteed right to learn to read.

  6. Unfortunately,

    The ACLU seems to be stretching the USSC Plyler decision (1982) which guarantees the right of all persons aged 6-18 to attend public school regardless of immigration status.

    The fact that Quentin can’t read is a sad commentary on what parental units are doing to children these days. Did Quentin’s mom ever take him down to the public library and interest him in books, or did she spend time reading with him on a daily basis?

    I think that Quentin and his mother (along with the district) bear some personal responsibility in this area (but that’s my opinion).

    • Elizabeth says:

      A child in 7th grade going into 8th reading at a 1st grade level ? For the parent to not notice this, it must be the mother or grandmother who is illiterate and perhaps of low intelligence – or has issues with drugs or mental illness. This child should have been screened by the school to see if he has any learning disabilities.

      Really, no one expects teachers to turn every child in poverty stricken areas into Fulbright scholars. But this article makes a very strong case for the anti-public school crowd.

      • You’re probably right about that.  Highland Park is a highly-selected sample at this point; it consists of those people who would not or could not move out.

      • Odds are he was screened and given an IEP. If he weren’t, that would be a much easier case to litigate, albeit against the school district instead of the state. The issue in this lawsuit appears to be funding – and a step beyond that, with the state having taken over financial responsibility for the school whether the state is now on the hook for the funds needed to provide adequate instruction and support for low-performing children’s reading skills. (I have not read the complaint, so call that an educated guess. If anybody has a link to the actual complaint, please share it.)

  7. palisadesk says:

    Unless the students are classified special ed students and there has been violation of specific regulations, the suit is unlikely to succeed IMO. Courts in multiple states have ruled there is no tort of educational malpractice; schools and districts may be held accountable for neglect of safety requirements or for racial or other discrimination, but not for failure to produce specific educational outcomes.

    The Michigan state law referred to, if it actually does state that schools must turn out students who all “read at grade level” — a statistical impossibility — is unlikely to survive a challenge. The failure to provide remedial support *might* be a potential Achilles’ heel, but much depends on exact wording and circumstances.

    Legal precedents commonly cited include the California case of Peter W. v San Francisco Unified S.D. and a New York case, Donohue v. Copiague Union Free S. D. Both were suits asking for damages due to the illiteracy or quasi-illiteracy of the student; both were dismissed (ultimately) on similar grounds. The court in the Donohue case agreed with some posters here that the family bore some responsibility and said:

    In addition to innate intelligence, the extent to which a child learns is influenced by a host of social, emotional, economic and other factors which are not subject to control by a system of public education. In this context, it is virtually impossible to calculate to what extent, if any, the defendant’s acts or omissions proximately caused the plaintiff’s inability to read at his appropriate grade level.

    while the California court pointed out:

    The science of pedagogy itself is fraught with different and conflicting theories of how or what a child should be taught, and any layman might–and commonly does–have his own emphatic views on the subject. The ‘injury’ claimed here is plaintiff’s inability to read and write. Substantial professional authority attests that the achievement of literacy in the schools, or its failure, are influenced by a host of factors which affect the pupil subjectively, from outside the formal teaching process, and beyond the control of its ministers.

    There’s always a first time, but nothing about this case (except possibly the involvement of the ACLU) suggests a more positive outcome for the plaintiffs can be expected.

    As to whether there SHOULD be some requirement for a measurable outcome, I would tend to say “yes” but how that should be defined and evaluated is another issue and opens up yet more cans of worms and potential for bureacracy and abuse.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    According to, this district spends $8,055 per pupil per year. 46% toward instruction, 49% support services, 5% other. So, assuming grades 1 through 7 – 7*$8,055= $56,385.