From the Daily: Literacy a crucial skill, not a right

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 9:55pm

As Detroit Public Schools continues to face turmoil, a group of attorneys and experts, including a nonprofit law center in Los Angeles, has brought a lawsuit against the state of Michigan in federal court on behalf of students in some of Detroit’s — and indeed the state’s — worst performing schools, arguing literacy is a constitutional right. They argue that people who are illiterate cannot exercise other constitutional rights such as political participation, involvement in the legal system or ability to serve in the military.

Literacy is, of course, an indispensable skill for being self-sufficient, and schools should be equipped to teach that skill to students. And while we commend those representing Detroit schoolchildren for bringing attention to DPS's problems, making literacy a constitutional right is not the way to fix the problem in Detroit Public Schools. Rather than rendering literacy something that should be regulated by the federal government, we believe the most important next step to take is reform of the education system with legislation, specifically for Detroit’s public schools.

Though we do not believe that changing the U.S. Constitution is the best route, the importance of the action taken by those who brought this case forward cannot be understated. In March 2016, the Editorial Board of The Michigan Daily published an editorial calling on the state of Michigan to help the suffering Detroit Public Schools foster a suitable learning environment. The organization's most recent action taken against the state will help keep the conversation alive on this all-too-important topic.

That said, attempting to change the Constitution to include literacy as a right is not the best course of action for several reasons. Though we believe all children do have the right to equal access to education, literacy adds another complicated layer. Literacy is difficult to quantify because it is not easy to measure. Although each person should have the right to equal access to education and equal access to universal educational tools, it is not as feasible for the Constitution nor the courts to guarantee that one will be literate even if proper tools are implemented.

What is more attainable, and arguably more urgent, is education reform. While it is not something that can be achieved overnight, there are important ways we can work toward crucial change. First and foremost, we need to strengthen each school’s resources. On a fact sheet on its website, the United States Department of Education suggests numerous possible ways to improve our schools and classrooms, one of which is providing adequate school facilities. The conditions of some of Detroit's school buildings have been in such disrepair that teachers participated in various “sickouts,” calling in sick in mass numbers and foregoing teaching for the sake of political statement.

Furthermore, education reform must go hand in hand with increased funding. While some funding can continue to come from local sources, such as property taxes that currently go to DPS, this alone will not suffice. In addition, Detroit’s average household income is half the national average, which speaks volumes about taxpayers’ inabilities to pay more in taxes to help failing schools — a problem which is rooted in larger economic issues in the city. Detroit’s economic position and historically high crime rates also influence the types of homes many students are coming from, impacting their experience in the classroom. Students with disadvantaged backgrounds can also be less likely to succeed academically, which could be yet another factor contributing to low literacy rates in Detroit Public Schools.

The conditions of Detroit Public Schools must improve. Literacy is a basic skill that each student should be given the resources to attain in a public school. But even with adequate resources, there is no way to guarantee all students can achieve this goal, and it is infeasible for the federal government to have to regulate such a skill on a district level. Therefore literacy should not be considered a constitutional right under the U.S. Constitution. Though this recent lawsuit is commendable for starting this conversation about literacy in Detroit Public Schools, legislation is where immediate action should be focused.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated that all children have the right to equal access to education under the Constitution, and that the right was granted under Title IX. Title IX is a piece of legislation that is not a part of the Constitution. Additionally, it does not grant equal access to education for all children, it protects people from gender discrimination in education. 

Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated this case was brought forward by the Youth Education Law Project. The case has actually been brought forward by Public Counsel, Sidley Austin LLP, Miller Cohen, University of California Irvine Dean of the School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky, and University of Michigan Dean Emeritus Evan Caminker.