Reading & Literacy

Do Students Have a ‘Right to Read’ in California? So Argues This Lawsuit

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 05, 2017 3 min read
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California’s constitution contains a “right to literacy,” and the state’s top educators have failed to provide students in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools the opportunity to achieve it, argues a lawsuit filed today in state court.

The lawsuit represents students in three schools—La Salle Avenue Elementary, in Los Angeles; Van Buren Elementary in Stockton, Calif; and the Children of Promise Preparatory Academy in Inglewood, Calif., as well as their parents and several advocacy organizations. Named in the suit as defendants are California’s board of education, education department, and state Superintendent, Tom Torlakson.

“The state has long been aware of the urgency and the depth of the all-too-preventable literacy crisis, and yet it has not implemented a single targeted literacy program to remedy this crisis,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the director of the opportunity under law division of Public Counsel, one of two groups representing the families, during an online press conference. “The state system of public education in California is the great unequalizer. ... Calfornia is dragging down the national when it comes to literacy and the delivery of basic education.”

Of the nation’s 200 largest districts, 11 of the 26 lowest-performing ones are in California, he noted.

Filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Ella T. v. State of California seeks a specific remedy: “Proven literacy instruction, literacy assessments and interventions, support for teachers, and implementation of practices to promote parent involvement and learning readiness,” the suit states.

Though not a class action lawsuit, any remedy would almost by definition affect all students in the Golden State.

The full complaint, available here from the law firm Morrison & Foerster, which is representing the complainants with Public Counsel, argues that being able to read and write is a core feature of citizenship, and therefore covered by the state’s educational guarantees.

“An education that does not provide access to literacy cannot be called an education at all. Nor can it prepare students to be citizens, participate meaningfully in politics, exercise free and robust speech, and voice the views of their communities,” it reads.

A State Challenge

That argument reflects an earlier lawsuit in Michigan, also filed by Public Counsel, in which the plaintiffs argued that it is impossible to be a productive member of society if one is not fully literate.

Despite the parallel, the actual legal strategy used in each differs. The Michigan case, asEducation Weekhas reported, is a federal lawsuit on equal-protection grounds, arguing that the dysfunction in Detroit was depriving those students of the literacy instruction given to other students.

The California lawsuit has a similar aim—furnishing students with better teaching and literacy materials—but uses a different venue. It’s a state constitutional challenge, not a federal one. Courts tend to be suspicious of cases seeking to read educational rights into the U.S. Constitution, and what’s more, case law in California has interpreted the state’s constitution to explicitly guarantee a right to “basic educational equality.”

The lawsuit also argues that California has long known about a crisis in its literacy instruction and hasn’t done enough to fix it. It cites a 2012 state plan, which was apparently created as part of an application for the federal Striving Readers program, but says that the plan was never fully put into action, despite its call for an urgent focus on reading.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit also seems to reflect a recent trend in education-equity lawsuits. Rather than the arguments about finance and facilities that dominated such litigation in the 1970s and 80s, advocates are increasingly focusing on the qualitative aspects of education, such as access to good teaching (the main thrust behind the 2014Vergarav.Californialawsuit), or as in this case, access to high-quality literacy instruction.

Like the Vergara lawsuit, the complaint itself contains wrenching descriptions of the challenges students in the named schools face—in this case, samples of student work that includes paragraphs written in broken English, low test scores from the schools named in the lawsuit, and descriptions of subpar assignments. (At least one student did a 5th grade book report on a Dr. Seuss book.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.