Last week the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a “right to read” lawsuit on behalf of nearly 1000 students in Detroit whose education has left them unable to read or write at even the most rudimentary level. In her blog on The Huffington Post Detroit, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss shared the following example of work by a 7th grade student in one of the city’s schools:
“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.”
I wish I could say that I’m shocked by this example of what goes on in many of our public schools, but I’m not. For a long time I’ve seen very similar student work from my college students, and it seems to have worsened in recent years. I have even made copies of such work and kept them in a special folder in my office filing cabinet, so that when people accuse me of lying or exaggerating about the poor quality of student work I have proof of the egregious depths to which some aspects of our educational system have fallen.
I will add that it is also much more common, in my experience, to see such work from students who come from poor urban areas with large minority populations, rather than from students emerging from largely white suburbs. Certainly there is a financial component to all public school problems because school funding is based on local tax rates. Poorer districts often struggle to fund their schools adequately. But the relationship between race, ethnicity and poverty in this nation means that there is more going on here than meets the eye. For example, Detroit students can’t read, but Michigan recently ranked as the 26th best state for science and math scores among its students. This discrepancy between average scores for the whole state but extremely poor scores in Detroit is probably the result of one of the most blatant racial divides in our nation: Detroit’s population is 82.7% African American, but the total population of African Americans in the whole state is only 14.2%. African Americans in Michigan are concentrated in one of the most economically devastated cities in the country, but the state itself seems to he doing fairly well. The result is that we’ve unintentionally created educational apartheid in some areas.
The ACLU lawsuit, then, is another attempt to hold government accountable for fulfilling its constitutional obligations, including equal treatment of all citizens. According to Moss,
“In the ACLU lawsuit, we ask that all those responsible for public education use research-based methods that are rigorously administered by well trained and supported professionals. We ask that they put trained teachers in the classrooms. We ask that they provide each child with the books they need and let them take them home. We ask that they provide safe and clean classrooms, bathrooms and hallways. We ask the court to decide that if the mandate to provide a public education to our children is to mean anything at all, it must mean that these children have the right to learn how to read.”
The interesting part of this description of the lawsuit is the phrase “the mandate to provide a public education to our children.” This is the Year of the Mandate: the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the government’s right to regulate certain aspects of healthcare through the Affordable Care Act can be viewed not just as a battle of partisan influence within the Court, but as a substantive debate over what the government’s role should be in our society. To some, government has no right to interfere in private business or to issue a “mandate” requiring participation in healthcare programs. However, to others, the U.S. Constitution’s assertion that “we the people” united to, among other reasons, “promote the general welfare” of our society. This argument won the healthcare debate, but now we need to work on our public education system. As the situation in Detroit shows, we are clearly failing at promoting the general welfare of all of our students, even as we promote them through the grade levels and graduate them without regard for their actual development of skills and knowledge.
Poor Education Hurts Democracy
This failure to promote the general welfare of our students means that we are also failing in the promotion and maintenance of our democracy. As the Enlightenment thinkers realized, human or natural rights and democracy go hand-in-hand; one naturally leads to the other. That’s one of the reasons slave-owners refused to allow their slaves to learn to read: they believed, as the old saying goes, that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Following the American Revolution, Enlightenment ideals were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as the basis of the new nation, and a public school system slowly emerged during the 19th century to ensure that an educated citizenry could run its democracy. The fundamental premise of public schools is that if we do not have an educated citizenry, we do not have the means to maintain a fully participatory democratic system. Voter ignorance increases the possibility that powerful forces can manipulate votes through fraud, misrepresentation of facts, and other serious impediments to the sustenance of our democracy.
In addition, following World War II, the horrifying results of totalitarianism led to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which includes a right to education in Article 26. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has said that,
“Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits.”
A right to education-and the necessity for access to equal education-became not only a component of American democracy, but an integral vision of a post-war world in which each individual was free to pursue human fulfillment, free from oppressive and restrictive governments. Article 26 proclaims that,
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” (Article 26)
These values helped propel the American Civil Rights Movement and provided one of the core justifications for the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. They also provided the impetus for the massive expansion of college loan programs in the United States in the 1960s.
The situation in the Detroit schools is therefore evidence of a departure from our strong history of linking solid educational experiences with the promotion of democracy. It is an abrogation of our nation’s democratic principles and governmental promises. Poor school performance leads to student failure and the loss of opportunity, which can destroy national unity, equality and create economic devastation. While some organizations, such as the ACLU and the Human Rights Education Association are valiantly fighting for the right to equal education for all, we must make sure the United States now fulfills its mandate to support and maintain the right to education, in terms of funding, quality, and opportunity. When we overlook the implications of this failure, we risk our national well-being.