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The Battle For A Constitutional Right To Literacy

Lawyers representing students in several U.S. states are making the case that the right to literacy is the bridge to so many other rights.

Students are fighting to make literacy a Constitutional Right
Students are fighting to make literacy a Constitutional Right
Moriah Balingit

Detroit — When Jamarria Hall strode into Osborn High in Detroit his freshman year, the signs of decay were everywhere: buckets in the hallways to catch leaking water, rotting ceiling tiles, vermin that crisscrossed classrooms.

In the neglected school, students never got textbooks to take home, and Hall and his classmates went long stretches — sometimes months — with substitute teachers who did little more than supervise students.

"It doesn't seem like a high school," said Hall, who graduated in 2017. "It seems like a state prison."

Hall was part of a class of Detroit Public Schools students who sued state officials in federal court, arguing that the state had violated their constitutional right to learn to read by providing inadequate resources.

A federal judge agreed this summer that the circumstances at Hall's school shocked the conscience. But what is shocking, he concluded, is not necessarily illegal — even if some graduates of Detroit's schools struggle to complete a job application.

"The conditions and outcomes of Plaintiffs' schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating. When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury — and so does society," Judge Stephen Murphy III wrote.

"But the Court is faced with a discrete question: does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy?" he wrote. "The answer to the question is no."

These children are being disenfranchised.

The case illustrated a conundrum that has vexed education advocates for decades: Neither the words "school" nor "education" appear in the Constitution, and federal courts have largely shied from establishing a special right for children to receive an adequate education. That has posed formidable hurdles for those who turn to the courts for help when their school buildings are falling down, or their children are enduring long stretches in classrooms without real teachers, or even when they see evidence of discrimination.

Now, attorneys are trying a new tactic.

They argue that the ability to read and write is key to unlocking other rights — voting, applying for jobs, writing letters to lawmakers — that federal courts have held sacred. An illiterate adult is unable to participate as a full citizen in a democratic republic, they argue.

"These children are being disenfranchised," said Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm that focuses on social justice issues and is representing the Detroit students. "Children are not receiving the basic skills to participate in a democracy."

Hall can read, but despite graduating with the highest SAT score among his classmates and being among Osborn High's best students, he was rejected from his dream school — Florida A&M University — and had to take a remedial writing class at a community college.

The conditions Hall and his classmates faced were not confined to Osborn: In a Detroit elementary school, a lawsuit alleges, grade-schoolers had no English textbooks and no way to access a library.

Students in class

"These children are being disenfranchised" Mark Rosenbaum, lawyer — Photo: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

Attorneys for the state of Michigan rejected the notion that literacy is a fundamental right and argued that the court had no authority to make it one.

"Although there are many important aspects of living in the United States, the mere fact that something is important does not mean that there is a constitutional right to it," Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette wrote in November 2016, when he asked the judge to dismiss the case. Schuette recently won the state's Republican Party's nomination for governor.

"For example, although it is certainly important for a person to have shelter, the Constitution does not create a right to governmental provision of adequate shelter," Schuette said.

State officials also argued that the suit failed to trace the ills of the schools to their actions. Attorneys for the children "allege unfortunate conditions in the children's schools, but they do not provide any relationship between the conditions of the schools and any race discrimination," the attorney general wrote in a court filing in 2016.

The right to learn to read, attorneys for the students argued, is analogous to the right to marry. In court documents, they referenced Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and declared marriage to be a fundamental right.

Rosenbaum also filed suit in California, accusing the state of failing to implement recommendations that came out of a report on literacy.

The suit, which includes young plaintiffs from three schools in Inglewood, Los Angeles and Stockton, alleges that resource-deprived schools did little or nothing when children fell short of state standards. One charter school — Children of Promise Preparatory Academy in Inglewood — had entire grade levels in which no students were rated proficient on state exams. A judge rejected the state's efforts to dismiss the lawsuit last month.

One woman, who sent her two daughters to the academy, said both brought home good grades and seemed to be doing well. But both nearly failed state reading exams. No intervention was provided to either girl.

"My daughter was passing her little spelling tests most of the time, but I didn't know it was that bad, I just didn't know," said the mother, who is identified in the lawsuit by a pseudonym. Attorneys used pseudonyms for the children and their parents to protect the privacy of academic records.

In many slaveholding Southern states, it was once illegal to teach enslaved people to read.

The children suing in the Michigan and California cases attended schools that were overwhelmingly poor, black and Latino. For Rosenbaum, poor test scores are evidence that the state is attempting to further "subordinate" communities that already have the odds stacked against them.

The link attorneys make between literacy and participation in democracy is hardly new. In many slaveholding Southern states, it was once illegal to teach enslaved people to read, and many states administered literacy tests to bar illiterate men — black or white — from the polls.

"This idea that we needed a literate, educated electorate dates back to before the Constitution," said Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor. Black recently wrote a law journal article tracing the historical roots of the association between public education and the right to vote.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress required Southern states seeking readmission to the Union to write new state constitutions that guaranteed suffrage for black men and the provision of public education for all. Black argues that Congress believed the two — the right to vote and the right to a public education — were inextricably bound. After all, how could a man — free or not — make informed decisions about his government if he could not read the ballot?

"Opening doors for everyone is not enough," he said. "You have to prepare them with the government knowledge and the critical literacy that would allow them to effectively vote."

While no court has recognized access to literacy as a right, many state courts have recognized that their state constitutions enshrine a child's right to some level of education and some have tackled unequal funding. But even when judges have ruled that schools are failing to meet their obligations under state constitutions, they have not always been able to deliver relief for students. State legislatures have sometimes ignored court edicts to equalize or increase education funding, or complied halfheartedly.

Washington state's Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that lawmakers were violating the state constitution by failing to provide enough money to schools. Lawmakers repeatedly crafted plans that the court found insufficient. In 2015, the court began fining the state $100,000 a day — money that was largely directed to education — for being in contempt.

The lawsuit ended in June — after billions had been invested in schools.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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