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Students Argue Literacy Is A Right In Lawsuit


The U.S. Constitution guarantees us many rights, but does it guarantee us the right to literacy? A group of students from Detroit sued the state of Michigan in 2016. They claimed bad schools which they were attending were, quote, "functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy." Now, the state argued that literacy is not a fundamental right, and a federal judge agreed and dismissed the case. But today lawyers for those students will start the appeals process. Mark Rosenbaum is one of the lawyers. I talked to him about the case and why he brought it.

MARK ROSENBAUM: Well, more than 60 years ago, the Supreme Court, in the Brown v. Board of Education case, said that where the state chooses to provide education, it has to do so on equal terms. The students we represent, those students are sitting maybe five miles away from campuses where students are given every opportunity to learn and to reach their full potential. And our argument is a pretty basic one, and that is zip codes should not determine destiny and that all children in Michigan should have the same opportunity to reach their potential. Really, that's what the case is about.

KING: These kids are essentially saying, we have the right to know how to read. It's guaranteed by the Constitution, and our schools failed us. I've got to ask you, does the Constitution actually say anything about literacy?

ROSENBAUM: The word literacy doesn't appear in the Constitution itself, but built into the notions of liberty, built into the notions of being able to participate in our democracy and built into our notions of equality is the idea that when children are compelled to go to a building that is designated as a school, they have to find inside that building teachers and books and core curricular subjects - conditions that make learning possible - and that the exercise of liberty interests cannot be vindicated where their counterparts a few miles away are on campuses that could be mistaken for the University of Michigan.

KING: Let me ask you. You're appealing the judge's decision on what grounds?

ROSENBAUM: The court tragically got it wrong when, as in a quality matter, he compared the children of Detroit to children in other schools where the proficiency rates hover around zero as opposed to what is the norm in Michigan. And we also say that the court got it wrong, tragically wrong, when it did not consider the fact that these children are being compelled by the state, by state law, to go to these schools, and then at the end of the day there's nothing in terms of education that's being delivered there.

KING: You are dealing in this lawsuit with children, with people under the age of 18. How are they feeling about this? Do they feel dismayed? Do they feel like they have a future?

ROSENBAUM: That's an extraordinarily important question. These kids and their families recognize that the struggle to get schools where they have an opportunity to learn is a historic one. I mean, they are very conscious of the fact that access to literacy has been a means to subordinate groups historically. They are aware they are not getting the same sorts of opportunities as their counterparts.

KING: That was Mark Rosenbaum with the public interest law firm Public Counsel. He and lawyers from the firm Sidley Austin are representing the students in this case. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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