Center for American Progress

RELEASE: The Right to Read: Suing a State for Better Teaching
Press Release

RELEASE: The Right to Read: Suing a State for Better Teaching

Read the analysis.

Washington, D.C. — Amid mounting concern about improving reading proficiency among elementary school children in the United States, the Center for American Progress released an analysis today laying out state reading proficiency laws and their enforcement in the context of a class action lawsuit currently circulating through the Michigan court system. The analysis evaluates how the current legal battle in Michigan may provide a glimpse into what other states could face if their laws requiring mandatory reading proficiency are not fully carried out.

Research strongly demonstrates that children who do not learn to read proficiently by the third grade face nearly insurmountable challenges, not only in subsequent schooling but also into their adult lives. Such evidence has prompted states around the country to enact legislation that requires the retention of students who cannot read at grade level and the intervention of special assistance to raise their reading achievement.

“This lawsuit is unusual because it goes directly to the effectiveness of education offered to students to teach them to read proficiently,” said Jenny DeMonte, co-author of the analysis and Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress. “It questions the quality of educational materials, the support for teachers to improve instruction, and the match between teaching and the needs of the students.”

Michigan state law requires that students read at grade level and targets students in the fourth and seventh grades. As outlined in the analysis, however, it has seldom—if ever—been heeded. In particular, only 21 percent of fourth graders and 27 percent of seventh graders were proficient in reading in Michigan’s Highland Park School District during the 2012–13 school year, and test scores from the following year indicated little to no improvement among the same students.

As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, filed a class action lawsuit claiming that the Highland Park School District and the state of Michigan failed to deliver adequate educational services to ensure that all students in their district learned to read. Additionally, the ACLU charged that the state and district failed to take the proper steps necessary to effectively address students’ reading deficiencies.

Unlike lawsuits about educational equity in other states that focus on school funding, the ACLU’s lawsuit in Michigan—S.S. v. State of Michigan—specifically targets the outcome of education by asserting that the state and district have an obligation to deliver high-quality education to students. The defendants in this case—which include the state of Michigan, the state department of education, and the state board of education to the local school district—maintain that the recent appointment of an emergency manager to the district absolved the state and district of responsibility of ensuring that students read at grade level. But a circuit judge ruled earlier this year that a shift in governance does not relieve Michigan of its obligation under its own laws.

In essence, the outcome of the lawsuit represents whether or not parents and civil rights organizations can sue states and school districts for better teaching and could set an important precedent surrounding state reading proficiency laws. S.S. v. Michigan has since been appealed to the circuit court, a process that could take months—perhaps even years—to determine if the lawsuit can proceed. Meanwhile, students attending Highland Park schools continue to struggle to learn to read, positioning these students for future struggles throughout the course of their education.

Read the analysis: The Right to Read: Suing a State for Better Teaching by Jenny DeMonte and Akash Patel

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To speak with a CAP expert on this topic, contact Katie Peters at or 202.741.6285.