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Is Literacy a Right?

When seven schoolchildren sued the state of Michigan for the failure of public schools in Detroit to teach them to be literate, the state attorney general asked the federal judge to dismiss the suit, arguing that no such fundamental right exists ("State says literacy not a right in Detroit," The Detroit News, Nov. 21). 

Although Michigan admits that literacy is important, it argues that it does not rise to the level of a right.  I find that distinction hard to understand. Every state makes K-12 education mandatory.  Public schools can't have it both ways.  If education is mandatory, then it's fair to ask what outcomes are expected. Is literacy not at the top of the list?  If not, why?

In Detroit, many students are unable to read or write. In one school, not a single 6th grader demonstrated even minimal proficiency in English or math ("Classrooms with rats instead of teachers: Is Detroit denying children of color their right to an education?" Los Angeles Times, Sep. 22). That is shocking.  Since this is the case, the plaintiffs will probably argue that Michigan has violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause by effectively excluding them from the state's guarantee of a free public education.

Whatever the ruling, the issue will not die because illiteracy is a virtual guarantee of a bleak future.  I hope the court will not buy the argument made by Michigan. It would set a terrible precedent for other states, whose public schools too often don't do much better than Michigan's.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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