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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘Right to read’ fight shifts to California

The right to an education doesn’t include a right to literacy — yet. However, “a judge has ruled that California can be put on trial for failing to give low-income students equal access to literacy instruction,” reports LA School Report’s Esmeralda Fabián Romero on The 74.

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Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos set an October, 2019 court date.

Ella T. v. State of California resembles a Michigan lawsuit that was dismissed earlier this month by a federal judge who ruled that there’s no constitutional right to be taught to read. The same public-interest law firm, Public Counsel, filed both cases, notes Romero.

Plaintiffs in the California lawsuit are 10 students attending Los Angeles Unified’s La Salle Avenue Elementary, Van Buren Elementary School in the Stockton Unified School District, and Children of Promise Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized by Inglewood Unified.

. . . The lawsuit states that in the 2016-17 school year, only 4 percent of students attending La Salle Avenue Elementary scored proficient on state tests in English language arts, meaning only 8 out of the 179 students who took the test could read and write at grade level. In the fourth grade at Van Buren Elementary in Stockton, only one student scored proficient.

The schools primarily enroll low-income Latino and African-American students.

The lawsuit demands the state implement its 2012  Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Plan.

The plan “was written as part of the state’s application for a multi-million-dollar federal grant,” writes John Fensterwald on EdSource. “When the state didn’t get the money, it shelved the plan designed to address what experts had characterized as a crisis, the complaint said.”

That inaction has had consequences for students like Ella T., who was reading at below-kindergarten level at the end of 1st grade and in need of “intensive support” she never got, the complaint said. Teachers in the plaintiffs’ schools didn’t receive the literacy training they needed and students in one kindergarten class at Van Buren Elementary, with substitute teachers all year long, had no literacy instruction at all, the lawsuit said. Over time, students fell further behind in reading comprehension. As a 5th-grader at La Salle, Richard W. did a book report on “The Cat in the Hat,” a kindergarten-level book, the complaint noted.

The 2012 plan called for schools to “train teachers in a research-based reading curriculum and individual instruction; give teachers classroom resources and provide parents tools they need to help their children,” reports Fensterwald. “Plaintiffs also call for building social-emotional learning into the curriculum and providing access to mental health support, recognizing that many children in low-income neighborhoods are exposed to violence and trauma.”

Educational malpractice suits rarely succeed, writes Mark Dynarski on Brookings’ site.

A Detroit 12th grader reads with his Beyond Basics tutor. Detroit has the lowest reading scores of any city. Photo: Chad Livengood/Crain’s Detroit Business

In the Michigan case, plaintiffs argued that “shortages of materials, not having skilled teachers, and poor conditions of their school buildings had deprived them of access to literacy, which, they argued, is essential in order to enjoy the other rights enumerated in the Constitution.” The complaint cited proven reading programs, as determined by the What Works clearinghouse, that Detroit schools haven’t used.

While the judge called conditions in Detroit schools “nothing short of devastating,” he found access to literacy is not a fundamental right.

In the last 40 years, of 80 cases alleging education malpractice, only one succeeded, due to “particular wording in the Montana state constitution,” writes Dynarski. “That districts and their schools do not have a legal responsibility to educate students might come as a surprise to parents and taxpayers who gave K-12 public schools $634 billion a year as recently as 2014.”

An upcoming federal lawsuit will argue students have a constitutional right to an education that prepares them to be citizens in a democracy, writes Robert Pondiscio. It’s a long shot.

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