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Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says failure to provide quality literacy instruction to all kids is a 'pernicious form of racial inequality.'

Attorney Mark Rosenbaum says failure to provide quality literacy instruction to all kids is a ‘pernicious form of racial inequality.’

Erin Einhorn

How a lawsuit filed today in Michigan could have consequences for schools across the country

A new lawsuit says Michigan is trampling the right of Detroit children to learn to read.

The lawyers behind the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, say it is the first of its kind in the nation — and that its outcome could have national implications.

“It’s a national scandal the number of children in major school districts who cannot read, write or have critical thinking abilities,” said attorney Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, which is bringing the suit along with a team of law firms and legal advisors.

“Detroit is at the bottom,” he said, citing a national exam that shows Detroit students lagging behind their peers across the country. “But school districts all over the United States are leaving their kids in a state of functional illiteracy.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, names Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials as defendants and demands that they provide quality literacy instruction to every Detroit child.

The suit does not put a dollar amount on what it would cost to bring quality instruction to all Detroit children. But it does highlight severe problems facing Detroit schools — in charter schools as well as schools that are part of the main city school district and the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

“Where state officials … deny access to literacy to children of color from low-income families, they perpetuate the most pernicious form of racial inequality that government can inflict on its most vulnerable and deserving population,” Rosenbaum said.

A spokeswoman for Snyder said he doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

There’s nothing new about advocates suing states in an effort to rectify inequality in schools. Just last week, a Connecticut judge ordered that state to overhaul its school system after finding that children’s rights were being violated under that state’s constitution.

But efforts to bring a similar suit in Michigan on behalf of students in Highland Park hit a dead-end two years ago when the state courts ruled that Michigan’s Constitution “merely ‘encourages’ education, but does not mandate it.

Rosenbaum, who argued the Highland Park case, said the Highland Park ruling forced attorneys to turn to the federal courts.

“In jurisdictions where the state Constitution has been interpreted not to create a fundamental right of education, there’s no other place to go than to the federal courts,” he said.