DETROIT -- In the first case of its kind, the American Civil Liberties Union is accusing the state of Michigan and a Detroit-area school district of failing to adequately educate children, violating their "right to learn to read" under an obscure state law.
The ACLU class-action lawsuit, filed last week, says hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District are functionally illiterate.
"None of those adults charged with the care of these children … have done their jobs," said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. "The Highland Park School District is among the lowest-performing districts in the nation, graduating class after class of children who are not literate. Our lawsuit … says that if education is to mean anything, it means that children have a right to learn to read."
The complaint, filed in state court in Wayne County, is based on a 1993 state law that says if public school students are not proficient in reading, as determined by tests given in grades 4 and 7, they must be provided "special assistance" to bring them to grade level within a year.
But at Highland Park, a three-school district bordering Detroit, most of the struggling students are years behind grade level and never received the kind of assistance required by law, the ACLU said.
Sara Wurfel, Gov. Rick Snyder's press secretary, said it was "impossible and imprudent to comment on a lawsuit that we haven't been served or read yet."
She said the administration is working to address "a long-overdue fiscal and academic crisis that was crippling the district, shortchanging its students, and threatening the schools' very existence. Everything we have done and are doing is to ensure that the kids of Highland Park schools get the education they need and deserve."
Efforts to reach the Highland Park School District were unsuccessful.
One student in the district, a 14-year-old boy named Quentin, just finished seventh grade. Quentin, whose mother asked that his last name be withheld, reads at a first-grade level, according to an expert hired by the ACLU.
When asked to compose a letter to Mr. Snyder to describe his school, Quentin misspelled his own name, writing, "My name is Quemtin … and 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 get a lot of tacher."
The district's record-keeping is shoddy and student files are incomplete, making it nearly impossible to identify which students need remedial help, the complaint alleges.
The most recent state test scores for Highland Park schools show 65 percent of fourth graders and 75 percent of seventh graders were not proficient in reading.
The Highland Park district also faces severe financial turmoil.
Once home to the automaker Chrysler and a stable, working-class community, Highland Park has suffered a severe downward spiral. The district faces an estimated $11.3 million deficit and has suffered a 58 percent drop in enrollment since 2006.
Highland Park is one of three school districts taken over by an emergency manager appointed by the governor. Last month, the manager, Joyce Parker, announced that all three Highland Park schools would be turned over to a charter school operator in September while she restructures the district's debt.
The operator has yet to be named. Ms. Parker said that once finances have stabilized, the district can return to a traditional public-school model.