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Another Literacy Lawsuit: Is the Right to Read Constitutionally Guaranteed?

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Dec 15, 2017
ThinkstockPhotos-499580999_x300Last week, a group of students, parents, and advocacy organizations (CADRE and Fathers & Families of San Joaquin) filed a class action lawsuit against California, alleging that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide a basic education for every student.

Represented by Public Counsel, an advocacy law firm, the plaintiffs are current and former students and teachers at La Salle Avenue Elementary School, Van Buren Elementary School, and the charter school Children of Promise Preparatory Academy—three of the lowest performing schools in the United States.

The lawsuit points a finger at the state’s own recommendations to improve literacy, outlined in a 2012 report commissioned by the state superintendent and state board of education president.  According to the civil action, the state has not adopted or implemented an adequate plan based on those suggestions, and therefore failed to intervene on behalf of low-performing students.

Public Counsel filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of students in Detroit schools last year. As Education Week noted, the proximity of these cases raises an overdue and important argument about the relationship of literacy to citizenship: “Is it possible to be a participating member of society without the ability to read and write?”

Life, literacy, and the pursuit of happiness

If you asked Paul Boyd-Batstone, professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach, he would answer with an emphatic “no.” He believes literacy is the common thread binding all curricular areas—when that thread starts to unravel, it disrupts all other learning.

“I don’t know if you can have a quality education without quality literacy instruction,” said Boyd-Batstone. “Maybe legally you can make that distinction, but I don’t think practically, in a school setting.”

According to Stanford University researchers’ ranking, 11 of the nation’s 26 lowest performing schools are in California. In 2016–2017, the schoolwide proficiency rates in reading at La Salle Avenue, Van Buren, and Children of Promise, respectively, were 4%, 6%, and 11%.

“When I saw those numbers, my first question was, What are the libraries like at those schools?” said Boyd-Batstone.

Diane Lapp, distinguished professor of education in the Department of Teacher Education at San Diego State University and chair of ILA’s Literacy Research Panel, feels that the literacy crisis undermines another unalienable right—the pursuit of happiness.

“To be happy, one has to have a productive life. Reading is a part of that. You need to be able to interpret information and analyze sources to make informed decisions and be an active citizen,” she said. “If you can’t communicate through language, whether it’s output or input, I don’t believe you’re going to have a very happy life.”

Prioritizing parent engagement

The plaintiffs are asking the state to meet its constitutional obligations by ensuring that all schools deliver proven literacy screening, instruction, intervention and assessment; provide adequate support and resources for teachers; and implement stronger accountability measures.

Boyd-Batstone said the demands put forth by the lawsuit are “well researched and address the needs of all children.” He advocates for a systematic approach that holds all parties responsible—national and state education agencies, administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and the students themselves.

Both Lapp and Boyd-Batstone underlined the critical importance of early intervention, at home and in the classroom.

“A few years ago, a colleague and I did a study in which we asked parents about their role in early literacy. They all said they didn’t know enough about early literacy and that they waited on the school to do it,” said Lapp. “If you wait until the child is five years old, you’re already five years behind.”

Boyd-Batstone recalled one of the most effective examples of parent involvement he’s seen in his more than 30 years as an educator. A principal in an urban, low-income public school in California hired a literacy coach to manage a parent drop-in center, where he taught parents, literate and illiterate, how to engage in meaningful literacy activities with their children.

“It became a community resource,” he said. “I love the idea of breaking down the walls between the community and school.”

Our children, not “their children”

Although Boyd-Batstone is supportive of the civil action, he said its success rests heavily on public dialogue, awareness, and concern. Literacy is everyone’s problem, as it can be connected to almost every socioeconomic issue.

“I think there’s a tremendous need to shift the discussion away from helping those children to helping all of our children—English learners, students with special needs, underserved populations,” he said. “The better we can serve all children, the better California will be.”

For more information on the lawsuit, visit

Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.

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