We wrote recently about an unusual lawsuit
underway in California, in which the organization Students Matter contends that current teacher protection laws are violating students' rights to equal education. A year prior the ACLU won a similar case, establishing that LAUSD's teacher layoffs had unequal and therefore unjust impact. Now it's Michigan's turn to undergo legal battles in the name of students' rights to a certain standard of education. The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan
and its Highland Park School District for violating students' right to learn to read. A 1993 state law stipulates that students be tested in fourth and seventh grades for reading proficiency and that, lacking such proficiency, students must be given assistance to reach grade level within a year. According to the ACLU, the majority of the Highland Park students who are way behind in reading are not receiving the mandated assistance. Recent district tests indicate that 65 percent and 75 percent of fourth and seventh graders, respectively, are not proficient readers.
The Michigan and California lawsuits may portend an interesting trend: in place of earlier suits on equal funding, and before that, segregation, this emerging focus on the quality of education actually conferred may be the next phase of education litigation. All states guarantee some level of education in their state constitutions, and a number have legal precedent at this point establishing education as a fundamental right. Present an equal protection angle to a court receptive to equity arguments in one of those states, and any number of personnel policies could face scrutiny. Legal scholars and education wonks alike should take note - the courts may be coming back as an ed reform strategy.
(Thanks to Eric Lerum from StudentsFirst for his input.)
Susan Douglas and Laura Johnson