Literacy Could Soon Become A Constitutional Right in the U.S.

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In Cincinnati on Thursday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals heard testimony about the terrible conditions in Detroit schools. These conditions prompted former and current Detroit public school students to organize and file a lawsuit asserting that the poor quality of the education they received during their years in the school system was a violation of their constitutional rights. This violation is based on the claim that a substandard K-12 education has lifelong negative impact, and inadequately prepares students to take advantage of established rights like voting and participating in our democracy.

Some of the issues detailed by students and faculty include outdated teaching materials, including at least one incident of teachers having to Google basic topics to teach, and juniors and seniors using 3rd or 4th grade-level textbooks.

One shocking allegation by the plaintiffs involves a student teaching other students in the absence of a qualified educator. According to Chalkbeat, an education news source, “The seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher left several weeks after the start of school due to frustration with large class sizes and lack of support. He was temporarily replaced by a paraprofessional and then a special education teacher. Eventually, the highest performing eighth grade student was asked to take over teaching both seventh and eighth grade math.”

The Detroit case, along with a similar one focused on the Rhode Island school system, could have sweeping impact across the country should either of them succeed. A win in one or both of these cases would establish the fundamental rights of access to literacy and a minimum quality of basic education. 

If literacy is determined to be a constitutional right, courts would likely see many similar cases to challenge conditions in school systems across the country. With so much on the line for students, educators, and their families, the Detroit case is drawing a lot of national attention. Activists came by the busload to demonstrate outside of the courthouse on Thursday in support of basic literacy and school quality for all students. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.