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The International Literacy Association (ILA) cosponsored the amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last week as part of a pending class action litigation that was initiated last fall on behalf of students in the City of Detroit’s public schools.
Latin for "friend of the court," an amicus brief is a supplemental pleading by persons who are not parties to the underlying case. Its purpose is to place additional pertinent facts and precedents on the record for the court to consult as it renders its decision. Moreover, the court can accept or not accept the brief, in its discretion.
Counsel representing the plaintiffs, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, drew national attention to the case by asserting that access to effective literacy instruction is a federal constitutional right their clients had been deprived of by the state’s neglectful administration, inadequate support, and poor oversight.
For ILA President of the Board William Teale, supporting the class action plaintiffs was an obvious choice. “ILA knows the critical importance of literacy, and we work around the globe to promote it,” Teale said. “Our mission compels us to support the children and families of Detroit in seeking reading and writing education that enables full participation in a democratic society.”
Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director, agreed. “This important lawsuit casts light on the critical issue of educational access as a central component to becoming literate,” she explained. “We simply have to address these inequities, or we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate future generations of people who are not literate.”
To support the plaintiffs’ claim, the complaint cited the persistent and pervasive failure of the city’s public school students to achieve grade-level results on standard literacy assessments as compared with students in other districts and schools in the state.
Lack of reading material and online access, unfocused teacher professional development, high levels of teacher turnover, and ineffectual intervention were also alleged.
The defendants—the governor of Michigan and a number of state education officials—filed a motion to dismiss the action last December on the grounds that a right to literacy cannot be found in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or in any U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never declared literacy to be a constitutional right, it opened the door for a future ruling on this point by commenting in the 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that some “identifiable quantum of education”—some small piece—might be a constitutionally protected prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of other legal rights.
Both the amicus brief ILA signed on to and the underlying complaint argue that basic literacy is the “identifiable quantum” contemplated in Rodriguez, the indispensable skill required to exercise First Amendment and other rights.
The brief further asserts that the development over the last 30 years of reliable measures of literacy attainment needed for things like getting a driver’s license, reading a W-2 form, or applying for employment provides the court with an appropriate standard for judging whether the dismal performance of Detroit’s schools rises to the level of a constitutional violation.
A ninth-grade Flesch–Kincaid or Lexile Framework reading level was suggested to the court as the minimum level for exercising constitutional rights, participating fully in the political process, and taking advantage of numerous other legal benefits.
Also joining the amicus brief were Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society in education, and the National Association for Multicultural Education.
Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.
Gina Pepin, Ed.D.
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