The first federal civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. history to secure the right of access to literacy is currently being argued in Michigan (see News, p. 9). The district judge has ruled that, despite its importance, children have no constitutional right to learn to read and write, but the plaintiffs see otherwise and are preparing their appeal to a circuit judge. The basis of their case—that minorities and other less privileged factions of society do not receive adequate attention or resources—is a familiar one.
Universal literacy is not only beneficial for society in general, it is fundamental to democracy—but asserting that it is, or should be, a constitutional right may seem to be an overreach of federal power. After all, the Tenth Amendment has traditionally been interpreted to shift responsibility for education to the states, and recently, there has been a reassertion of state power and opposition to federal intervention. However, the constitutional principle of equity may override such concerns, as it did in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The 14th Amendment prohibits any state from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The equal protection clause was enacted by Congress after the Civil War to help former slaves from the South participate in society. For readmission to the Union, Congress required Southern states to adopt the 14th Amendment and rewrite their state constitutions to conform to a republican form of government with universal education.
By the time the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, state constitutional law and congressional demands had established education as fundamental to citizenship.
Despite the amendment, a hundred years later, in the Jim Crow era, education, or rather the lack of it, was used as a tool of minority oppression through the imposition of literacy tests for voter registration.
“Universal literacy is not only beneficial for society in general, it is fundamental to democracy.”
Now, all 50 state constitutions guarantee education. Once it can be established that education is a constitutional right, it’s a short walk to extend that right to literacy. Every elementary teacher will tell you that the first few years of school are spent learning to read and the rest reading to learn. Without adequate literacy, education collapses.
Establishing access to literacy as a civil right through the judicial system is an arduous process that would not be necessary were our schools adequately funded and wholeheartedly supported, but public education in the U.S. is under attack and may need to rely on the Constitution for protection.
Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe called the lawsuit “both creative and rock solid” and added: “If you think of Brown v. Board as one shoe that dropped, this is the other shoe.” Once that shoe is neatly tied and shined, it will provide underserved communities with a powerful tool to kick state lawmakers into line when they fail to ensure that allocation of resources to schools is fair. Every child deserves the constitutional right to thrive, participate, and question through literacy.