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EDITORIAL: Literacy for all children is a fundamental right in a democracy

(Sun-Times Library)

Care to guess what percentage of kids in Detroit’s public schools can read at least minimally well?

Five percent.

That’s the percentage of fourth graders in Detroit’s schools who, according to the latest test scores, are “proficient” in reading.

We have to wonder not just how the other 95 percent will earn a paycheck some day, but also how they will be able to participate in our democracy. How do you cast a vote if you can’t read a ballot?


The situation in Chicago is not nearly so dire, but neither is it something to brag about. Only 27 percent of Chicago Public School fourth graders this year were found to be proficient in reading. That compares with a national rate for public school fourth graders of 35 percent, which also is not great.

In the last few years, school test scores have been creeping up around the country, with Chicago’s public schools making especially significant gains. We have written about this often, giving the news a nicely positive spin. Chicago has been an innovator.

But let’s get real. As a city, state and nation, we continue to fail millions of children whose only mistake was to be born poor. And if we don’t entirely rethink the importance of a basic education in a free society — that it is a natural right, not just a legal obligation — we will never do more than work along the edges of improving our public schools.

This notion that education is not simply a legal responsibility of society, but also a fundamental right of children, came to a head in a federal court last month, and it did not go well. It was a bad day for those, like us, who believe education is as basic a need for a child as shoes for a runner. Without it, kids can’t compete.

A federal judge in Michigan ruled on June 30 that children do not have a fundamental right to learn to read and write, no matter how important literacy is to making one’s way in life.

“Plainly, literacy — and the opportunity to obtain it — is of incalculable importance,” U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III wrote in a 40-page opinion. “As plaintiffs point out, voting, participating meaningfully in civic life, and accessing justice require some measure of literacy.”

But those arguments, Murphy continued, “do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right.”

It is a sad comment on our national priorities that anybody had to file this suit. Something is wrong when the argument even has to be made that literacy is an essential need in modern life, and therefore should be treated as a fundamental right. We just don’t see a lot of serfs tilling their lord’s fields these days, able to get along by scrawling an “X” for a signature.

The suit was filed by the City of Detroit, the AFL-CIO and others against the state of Michigan, which — as in Illinois — has primary legal responsibility for funding the public schools. Michigan, like Illinois, is letting the big city down.

In fairness, things have improved along those lines in our own state. Last summer, the Illinois Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner finally approved a new state funding formula for public schools, giving a greater proportion of state funds to schools serving poorer kids. The new formula, along with a $350-million infusion of additional state funds, is expected to narrow the gap over time between how much money is spent per student in rich and poor communities.

To really close that gap, though, Illinois would have to spend billions of dollars more on the public schools, which is not about to happen. Our state’s finances remain a disaster, for one. And we continue to be blind, as a state, to the point made explicitly in the federal suit in Michigan — a decent education for all children should be viewed as an essential right in a democracy.

And that begins with literacy.

“In today’s world, the skill of reading and comprehension is more important than it has ever been,” Michael Addonizio, a professor of education at Wayne State University, told the Detroit Free Press. “There are just so many opportunities that are closed off for people who are not good readers.”

Study after study confirms the obvious, that education is the best ladder up from poverty. The more we deny poor children that education, the less social mobility we see, and the wider the class, wealth and income gaps in America grow.

Central to the American ideal is the notion that you can start out poor and become more prosperous, that hard work matters more than the circumstances of your birth. Every American, we want to believe, has a fighting chance.

But in Detroit, where just 5 percent of public school fourth graders are proficient in reading, that kind of talk must sound like flag-waving hot air. And in Chicago and the nation, where the percentages are 27 and 35 respectively, it can’t sound much better.

If literacy is a natural right, public education is truly in crisis.

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