Without re-engineering children's brains to learn to read, some can expect to live shorter, less healthy, less happy and less prosperous lives than their better educated fellow citizens.

Share story

In 1948, the United Nations declared that education is a universal human right.

But in the summer of 2018, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Michigan’s governor and other state officials, ruling that “access to literacy” — the cornerstone of education — is not a fundamental right in the United States.

Therefore, the nearly 50,000 students warehoused in Detroit’s schools “where not even the pretense of education takes place” must look elsewhere for justice, according to the lawsuit.

The judge explained in his June decision that the U.S. Supreme Court has considered a right to be fundamental if, by its sacrifice, liberty and justice would not exist.

The plaintiffs say they will appeal. They should win.

Liberty and justice cannot exist in a country where the right to own guns capable of mowing down children in their classrooms is fundamental, but the chance to learn to read and write in those classrooms is not.

Washington’s Supreme Court affirmed in the recently concluded McCleary lawsuit that the state’s children do have a constitutional right to an amply provided education, which required government action and greater funding.

The Detroit plaintiffs argue that literacy itself — in a country where it was once a crime in some states to teach slaves to read — makes all other rights meaningful.

The lawsuit, brought in 2016 on behalf of students at five Detroit schools (three district and two charter) under state control for poor performance alleges that state officials denied them the same chance to learn to read and write afforded other children in Michigan.

Detroit’s children were expected to learn to read in vermin-infested schools where it was hot enough to induce vomiting and cold enough that students could see their own breath indoors.

They were expected to learn to read in classrooms so jampacked that right-handed kids couldn’t be seated next to left-handed ones.

They were expected to learn to read from inexperienced, inadequately trained teachers and staff, including security guards, using lesson plans downloaded from the internet the night before class.

Such magical thinking ignored the needs of students who had vastly different reading abilities within a single classroom, including children who were as many as four years behind.

Some students could not write a complete sentence. Some struggled to pronounce single-syllable words.

Most of Detroit’s schoolchildren are low-income, and about 96 percent are black or Hispanic. The plaintiff’s observation that nearby Grosse Pointe — mostly affluent and white — would never tolerate such conditions was considered irrelevant by the judge.

The plaintiffs aren’t arguing that Detroit’s kids should be guaranteed the same test scores as the kids in Grosse Point, just the same opportunity for literacy.

McCleary also does not guarantee equal success. But are we confident the opportunity to receive effective teaching is equal when huge gaps persist?

On the most recent national reading test, 34 percent of Washington’s black 8th graders scored “below basic” compared with 15 percent of white students. On the same test, 31 percent of students from low-income families also scored “below basic” compared with 11 percent of their wealthier peers.

Students who score at least “basic” can locate information, identify main ideas and draw simple inferences from what they read.

Effective teaching rewires a child’s brain: It connects symbols with speech to conjure meaning so fast it’s measured in thousandths of a second.

A recent University of Washington study showed that just eight weeks of intensive teaching for struggling grade school-age children strengthened connections in their brains associated with reading, and their skills improved.

Children with brains re-engineered for reading can think the thoughts and feel the feelings of others who have lived different lives than their own, even if they lived long ago or far away. Children who can learn from what they read may claim humanity’s accumulated culture, knowledge and wisdom, which is their birthright.

Perhaps they will increase that inheritance.

But without that re-engineering, children can expect to live shorter, less healthy, less happy and less prosperous lives than their better educated fellow citizens.

Do liberty and justice exist in Detroit’s schools? Do liberty and justice exist in all Washington state schools?

Children who land in prison unable to understand instructions on a pill bottle or read a clearly labeled map will not have liberty.

So far the children of Detroit have been denied justice, and they’re not alone.