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A long overdue civil right to literacy

A whole new ballgame is underway in the fight for equal education opportunities. A class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Michigan claims that the state of Michigan is denying students in the Detroit public schools their constitutional right to learn to read.

It’s about time. The promise of Brown v. Board of Education has been utterly broken. In Detroit, based on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, only a little over 5 percent of fourth and eighth grade students scored proficient in reading. Other cities with concentrations of poor and minority children don’t do much better, including Baltimore (only about 12 percent scored proficient).

The eminent constitutional law scholar Lawrence Tribe expects the Detroit lawsuit, filed last year, will make history “much as Brown v. Board of Education did.” He says the legal theory behind the suit is “creative and rock-solid.”

And the cause — the right to be able to read — is a no-brainer. No child has a fair chance to participate in our workforce and civic life without literacy skills. The inability to read not only robs the children of what should be their birthright. It robs our nation economically, and is a root cause of our social inequality and unrest.

Nonetheless, opponents will raise the specter of judicial interference with state and local control of schools. Of course this ignores the fact that state and local control is no less to blame now for illiteracy than it was 60 years ago for racial segregation.

The more substantial argument is whether a judge or anyone else now knows what it will take to enable all students (who do not have severe cognitive limitations) to achieve proficiency in reading. Here too the answer is reasonably clear: There is sufficient research pinpointing the evidence-based classroom practices that can lead to basic literacy skills for all.

A model approach is built into the work of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (known as the Kirwan Commission). Its assignment is to cull from research and professional judgment the instructional elements that can enable all students to meet state academic standards including literacy, and to cost them out. The state is under a legal duty to pay the costs of such an “adequate” education.

The elements include pre-school programs, teacher quality, class size, interventions for struggling learners (like tutoring and summer school), career and technical education, and school safety. Not an easy lift when so many students are so deep in the hole, but the elements are academic and legal necessities.

In addition to the Detroit case, an allied legal attack has just been launched in Berkeley, Calif. Last month disability rights lawyers brought suit in federal court alleging the school district’s failure to teach children with reading disorders, such as dyslexia, to learn to read violated a right guaranteed under the federal law governing students with disabilities.

I am now writing a book that covers the ground at stake in the Detroit and Berkeley lawsuits. In fact, the great majority of students in special education do not legally belong there. Students — almost all of them struggling readers — are not supposed to be found eligible for special education unless they have previously received adequate instruction in general education. But the law is violated on a massive scale.

Hopefully, education and civil rights advocates in Baltimore and Maryland will not have to resort to the federal courts. It depends on whether the Kirwan Commission, the governor and General Assembly, the Maryland Department of Education and local school systems do a lot more to ensure schoolchildren the right to read and succeed.

The reality is that in Detroit, Berkeley and no doubt copycat suits, the lawyers will go at it and at it for years to come. There should be a better way. Future generations will look back and say, as was said about Brown v. Board of Education, “What took us so long? Why were we not fulfilling the right of children to equal educational opportunity including the all-important right to read?”

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former chairman of the Baltimore school board's budget committee. His email is

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