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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 17, 2013 at 5:00 AM

Suing schools when kids can’t read?

Photo by Chris Joseph Taylor / The Seattle Times 2007

Photo by Chris Joseph Taylor / The Seattle Times 2007

Amid ever-louder calls to improve education both here and nationally, parents could be forgiven for hearing all the noise as little more than saber-rattling. But consider Michigan, where failing schools are now a legal matter.

My name is [redacted] and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.

This passage was written to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder by an eighth-grader in the Highland Park school district, who is among eight plaintiffs suing the state for failing to teach them to read.

Nine states – including Ohio, Florida and Arizona – have laws on the books requiring that no student be promoted out of the third grade without reading proficiently. (In Washington, the decision is left up to individual school districts.)

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, about 10 percent of all K-8 students are retained, most in kindergarten or first grade and most of them poor.

Research on this practice is mixed. Some educators say holding kids back does serious damage to self-esteem, with far-reaching consequences. Others insist that moving kids onto the next grade unprepared is a recipe for disaster.

Florida, which held back 18,000 students last year, is usually considered the most aggressive in this regard. But Michigan has had a law on the books since 1993, requiring that students read proficiently by the fourth and seventh grades — or else get intensive help. Clearly, the eighth grader who wrote to Governor Snyder could have used it.

So the American Civil Liberties Union has filed S.S. v. State of Michigan, a class action lawsuit claiming that schools are legally obligated to do more than simply keep the doors open; they must actually ensure that students learn.

Could Michigan herald a wave of similar litigation? Or even a Washington law mandating similar student progress? Stay tuned. The state and school district in question say this case should be tossed, and that question is now under appeal.

Meanwhile, Highland Park’s students still can’t read.

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