Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Back in 1993, Michigan enacted a state law  that established a right to read. If children in fourth and seventh grade read below grade level, based on their performance on the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP), then they must receive “special assistance” to catch up within a year.

Now, almost two decades later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has filed a potentially ground-breaking lawsuit alleging that the state and the Highland Park School District (HPSD) have failed to meet this statutory responsibility.

In Highland Park, a school district located just outside Detroit, 65% of fourth graders and 75% of seventh graders are not proficient readers, according to MEAP.

“The lawsuit, which could have national implications, is the first of its kind asserting a child’s fundamental right to read. It charges that state agencies, as well as those overseeing Highland Park schools, failed to take the effective steps to ensure students are reading at grade level, as set forth by state law and the Michigan Constitution,” which requires the state to provide free elementary and secondary education, the Detroit Free Press reports.

“This case, simply put, is the right for children to read,” Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, tells the Free Press. “It says we have zero tolerance for failure. We have zero tolerance for illiteracy.”

Moss tells CNN, “We felt that, at this point, given the dire conditions, a lawsuit was going to be the only route to get everybody who needs to be at the table at the table, working together.”

Judge Robert Ziolkowski of the Wayne County Circuit Court has scheduled a hearing today on motions by the state of Michigan, state education agencies and the school district to dismiss the suit.

“The Highland Park School District is among the lowest performing school districts in the state of Michigan and will remain so unless research-based methodologies for improving basic literacy skills and reading proficiency are immediately implemented and rigorously administered by well-trained and supported professionals and monitored strictly according to accepted standards of the profession,” the lawsuit states.

The 1993 law focuses on remediation. Today much of the conversation around improving reading proficiency stresses prevention. Strategies that incorporate children’s earliest years and oral language development can help put children on the path to reading success.

Indeed, a recently released longitudinal study of Michigan’s Great Start pre-kindergarten program for children at risk of school failure looked, among other things, at fourth grade MEAP performance in reading and math. Great Start graduates, the study finds, scored higher than demographically similar students who did not attend the pre-k program.

Meanwhile, the 1993 Michigan law highlights the fundamental importance of reading proficiency.

“In enacting MCL 380.1278(8), the Legislature recognized that at a bare minimum, the ability to achieve basic literacy as represented by achieving reading proficiency appropriate to age and grade level constitutes the root of all learning,” the ACLU lawsuit states. “As but one ramification, children within HPSD who cannot meet basic reading proficiency levels appropriate to their grade level are per se unable to achieve proficiency in the Grade Level Content Expectations promulgated by the Michigan Department of Education for all core academic curricula for each grade and subject. Unsurprisingly too, failure to read proficiently is linked to higher rates of school dropout, which impairs individual earning potential, undermines self-esteem and destabilizes family cohesion. At a state level, this failure saps the general productivity and competitiveness of the State of Michigan, needlessly costing our taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost tax revenues and increased social welfare, health care and criminal justice costs.”

The National Journal asks broader questions: “Is reading a civil right? Is education a civil right? Can poverty-stricken school districts use lack of funding as a legal defense against a complaint like ACLU’s? If reading were considered a legal civil right, would that make it easier to turn around failing schools? Are there better options? Or does illiteracy require drastic measures?”

At today’s hearing, Judge Ziolkowski will also consider motions by the plaintiffs seeking certification of the class and expedited discovery, says Rana Elmir, communications director of ACLU of Michigan. Since the lawsuit was filed, a charter school company has taken over operations of some troubled Highland Park schools.