A New Right to Literacy?

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| May 13, 2020 | Uncategorized |

For fifty years different parents have tried to get a court to say their children had a right to a better school. This month one group finally succeeded. A federal court ordered their schools to make their kids literate.

The winning parents came from Detroit. The city’s schools, like all big-city schools, had money and teachers. Those resources did not produce the results the parents wanted. Their children’s test scores fell behind the scores of their suburban and small-town peers.

The Detroit parents wanted the federal court in Michigan to say their children had a right to literacy. Like all children, they already had a constitutional right to go to school. What their parents needed was for this court to find a right to a certain level of reading and writing, a right to ‘foundational literacy’. If it found that in the Constitution, the winners could hold Detroit liable for the low scores.

No court had ever found such a right. The United States Supreme Court had discovered other unwritten rights in the Constitution, like the rights to privacy and to abortion. It had written about a right to literacy but never decided on it.

Lower court judges hadn’t found one, either. In 2018 a state court judge in Connecticut found something like it. He held that state and local leaders had discriminated against pupils in Hartford, New Haven and other big cities by not giving their schools enough money. The decision was overturned on appeal.

The Detroit court took one step forward. It built its decision on the language in earlier Supreme Court decisions. The vote was 2 to 1. Detroit will certainly appeal, to the Supreme Court if it has to.

Whether or not the decision lasts, it shows that we ask judges to answer questions they may have no business hearing. We fight over issues like abortion, or transsexuality, or money for schools. We cast votes over them in elections. When we don’t like the answers our elected officials give us, we take our side to the courts.

Judges normally have no desire to settle such arguments. They freely state they have not the skill for it. The Constitution does not ask them to.

Most importantly, no court can ever truly end such an argument. Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. It hasn’t ended our argument over abortion

For the time being, the Detroit parents have won their side of the argument over schools. The ruling can’t guarantee higher test scores. It won’t keep local and state voters from disagreeing with it.