ACLU Sues Michigan, School District Over Students’ ‘Right to Read’

Published August 20, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Michigan officials and a school district near Detroit, alleging they violated students’ “right to read” by providing abysmal instruction for decades.

The ACLU complaint alleges students in Highland Park School District “have been denied the instruction necessary to attain basic literacy skills and reading proficiency expected of all students by the State of Michigan.”

Michigan law requires schools to provide special assistance to students scoring below their grade level on a standardized reading test taken in fourth and seventh grades. That assistance should be “reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.” The law exempts students with special circumstances.

Abysmal Reading Ability
In Highland Park, 65 percent of fourth graders and 75 percent of seventh graders scored below proficient on the reading tests, and the lawsuit alleges they have not been given the required extra instruction.

The ACLU asked students to write what they would like to tell the state’s governor about the school, and it included the students’ answers in the complaint. A 7th grade student wrote:

My name is [redacted] and you can make the school gooder by getting people to 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 student spelled his own name incorrectly in the sample.

Listed as defendants are the district, the State of Michigan, the State Board of Education, the Michigan Department of Education, State Superintendent Michael Flanagan, and school district emergency manager Joyce Parker.

Poor Learning Conditions
The complaint charges the school facility is in poor condition, which also inhibits learning. The complaints include: 

  • Books are outdated, in bad condition, and few. Students must share textbooks during class and may not take them home. Students cannot check books out from the library.
  • Classrooms have little or no heat, and students wear coats and gloves in the classroom during Michigan’s winters.
  • Class sizes are too large for proper instruction. Many students in one 7th grade class stood or sat on the floor as the classroom could not accommodate all 50 of them.
  • Bathrooms and hallways are not kept clean or in good repair. Hallways are damp from leaks, and bathrooms are not stocked with paper. A homeless man lived and slept in the building without school officials noticing.
  • Student records are poorly kept and not accessible to parents.

Converted to Charter
This fall, Highland Park schools will be run by Leona Group LLC, a charter company. The move to charter the schools generated controversy and came after a decline in enrollment and poor fiscal management. 

“[The lawsuit] is not pro- or anti-charter. It’s not pro- or anti-union,” said Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU-Michigan. “We are representing the kids. We’re giving them voice.” 

The suit’s main objective is to enforce state law requiring personalized instruction for the students, she said, but the ACLU also hopes to force administrators to improve the school building.

“The heat should be fixed. The kids should be able to take books home. They should clean the bathroom,” she said.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) appointed Joyce Parker emergency manager of the district in May. In November, voters will have a chance to dismantle a new state law that allows the state to appoint a manager for financially failing municipalities and school boards.

Jan Ellis, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Education, said she could not comment on the lawsuit, but she noted financial assistance is available from the state and federal government for low-achieving schools, and the state can send consultants to help school officials find ways to improve.

Choice As Alternative

Adopting school choice could be more effective than taking legal action against the school, said Josh Dunn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. 

“The best way to help parents is to empower them, so they can take some ownership of their child’s educational outcome,” he said. “I don’t believe that school choice is going to solve all our educational problems, but for a certain percentage of kids who really are trapped, it’ll make a difference.”

Courts are often a poor mechanism to implement meaningful reform, he said.

“I would certainly trust the superintendent of education in Michigan before I’d trust the state judge to know what’s better for these kids,” he said.

Lawsuit a ‘Baby Step’
The lawsuit is “a baby step on the road to school reform,” said Maureen Martin, legal affairs director of The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News.

“The focus is on getting these kids help immediately so they can get on with lives hopefully more productive than they otherwise would have been,” she said.

“One cannot help but wonder, though, why school officials, who are supposedly dedicated to ‘the children,’ would not have remedied these deficiencies without a lawsuit and why these students were [socially] promoted in the system and why their teachers still have jobs. Someone—hopefully [the] teachers and administrators [responsible]—should pay for this situation. Thanks to the lawsuit, though, it won’t be the children, I hope.”


Image by Child Aid International.