ACLU Sues Michigan Over Poor Educational Outcomes
Photo Credit: Vepar5 via Shutterstock.com
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The research is irrefutable: Children who don’t learn to read proficiently by the third grade face nearly insurmountable challenges not only in their next decade of schooling but also into their adult lives. The mounting evidence clearly linking the ability to read well in the early grades to future success has, over the past few years, prompted a number of states to consider and enact legislation to require the retention of students who cannot read at grade level in the third grade and the intervention of special instruction and support to raise their reading achievement. Earlier this year, Arizona enacted a new law requiring any student not proficient in reading at the end of the third grade, as measured by the state reading test, to be retained in the third grade (though there are exceptions for English language learners and students with disabilities). For the most part, the new laws addressing reading proficiency target the third grade as the make-or-break year for reading, though some laws specify remediation in the fourth or fifth grades.
The laws, though they vary in the specific grade level targeted, tests required, and remediation procedures, share a common philosophy: Learning to read in the early grades is essential if a child is to succeed in the upper grades and beyond. As a policy, these laws appeal to the best desires of citizens and educators, and promise that children will learn and master the fundamentals to participate and succeed in a civic democracy.
Florida is often spotlighted as the first state to enact a reading proficiency law in 2002. But Michigan has had a law requiring that students read at grade level since 1993. It is buried deep in the state’s code governing schools and says that students must read on grade level at the fourth and seventh grades, and if students cannot read, the state must provide special instructional assistance to bring them up to grade-level reading within 12 months. But the law has seldom, if ever, been heeded. As a consequence, many children in Michigan’s school districts are not able to read on grade level.
In 2012, Florida’s state department of education estimated that 18,000 students were retained in the third grade because they were unable to read on grade level. But in at least one district in Michigan, students who were not proficient in reading in the fourth and seventh grades did not receive the specialized instruction required by law. That prompted the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, to test the strength of the Michigan law’s requirement that children read on grade level in grades four and seven through a class action lawsuit— S.S. v. State of Michigan .
The suit on behalf of eight named plaintiffs and their student colleagues in the Highland Park School District claims that the state and district are legally obligated to do more than just operate and maintain schools, and must ensure that all students learn to read. Highland Park, a small city of about 12,000 residents, is an independent island of a municipality entirely within the Detroit city limits. According to the 2010 Census data, Highland Park’s population is approximately 94 percent African American, with about 47 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. The 950-student school district was taken over by a governor-appointed emergency manager in 2012 when the district experienced a financial crisis. Shortly after taking over, the emergency manager hired The Leona Group, a for-profit charter company, to run the district’s schools.
What makes this particular lawsuit worth noting is its timeliness given the mounting concern for improving reading proficiency among elementary schoolchildren in the United States. It may provide a glimpse into what other states could face if their laws requiring mandatory reading proficiency are not fully carried out. It is possible that other students in other states will file suit asking to be taught to read.