The Court has Ruled: Literacy is not a Right

Public school funding is still below pre-recession levels in 29 states. Educators are spending an average of $500 out of their own pockets yearly. This is why we do what we do at First Book. And this year, we have the opportunity to make sure that every back-to-school start is a great start. Here’s how you can help:

  • If you’re an educator serving children in need, register with First Book.
  • If you want to help make a difference for teachers heading back to school, click here to donate to First Book. Through September 12, 2018 a $3 gift will provide 2 books to a child, thanks to a generous group of donors who will match every donation.

The following post first appeared on Medium, July 12, 2018. Authored by Kyle Zimmer, president, co-founder, and CEO of First Book.

Just days before celebrating our nation’s birthday, a U.S. District court announced this eye-opening finding: for children growing up in the U.S., access to literacy is not a fundamental right.

The ruling was the final step in a closely watched lawsuit: Gary B. et al. vs. Richard Snyder et al., brought on behalf of children who attend or attended public schools in Detroit. The suit alleged that the condition of the children’s schools was so insufficient that students have not received even a minimally adequate education — and specifically, that they have been denied access to literacy, in violation of their Constitutional rights.

As a lawyer, I was not surprised by the ruling.

Judge Stephen Murphy, III, cited the legal precedents and findings that led to the dismissal of the case. But he also went to great pains to describe the fact that he felt constrained by precedents. “The conditions and outcomes of Plaintiffs’ schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating,” Murphy wrote in his legal opinion. “When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury — and so does society.” He understood the importance, but failed to find his judicial footing.

D.C. teacher and First Book member Sean Bellamy poses with his students and their classroom library.

Although not surprised, I was disappointed. Many of our fundamental rights — the First Amendment and our right to vote among them — are voided when an individual can’t read. These rights are the pillars of our democracy.

Just as there is “no fundamental right to receive water and sewer services,” Judge Murphy writes, “access to literacy is not a fundamental right.” But that is a false equivalence — lacking access to literacy undermines the foundation of our country in a way that nothing else does.

For everyone who cares about fairness, our children and our future, this is a defining moment: a rallying cry to take action.

The current educational inequities may not present a constitutional crisis under this decision, but they absolutely present a crisis for our country and everything we stand for.

Today more than HALF of the students attending U.S. public schools are from low-income households, many growing up in “book deserts.” Their neighborhoods have no bookstores; public libraries are not readily available, or are closed, or have reduced hours. School libraries are understocked and understaffed — for those schools lucky enough to have one at all. In one of the most poverty-ridden areas of D.C., researchers found just 1 book for every 830 children.

While this lawsuit addressed conditions in Detroit’s schools, we know that schools across the U.S. are similarly struggling.

With public school funding still below pre-recession levels in 29 states, school districts are facing enormous budget deficits. Heroic educators try to address the needs, spending an average of $500 out of their own pockets each year on books and school supplies — and many spend much more.

This inequity has enormous individual and societal costs. Poor educational outcomes are tied to future poverty, unemployment, health issues, hopelessness, and crime, and contribute to a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70 percent of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level, meaning “they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” A report from the Department of Justice stated that “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure.”

Educational disparities also impede our national economic competitiveness.

According to McKinsey & Company, our failure to provide educational opportunities for children in need imposes the equivalent of a permanent economic recession on our nation.

When I volunteered at a soup kitchen in D.C. years ago, I knew that the time I spent with the children there could be so much more useful if we had access to books. After seeing the widespread lack of affordable and relevant books and resources, and the impact it has, I co-founded First Book as a nonprofit social enterprise to develop a systemic solution. First Book has since provided 175 million books and resources through a growing network of more than 375,000 formal and informal educators. Yet we have only scratched the surface needed to reach the estimated 1.3 million classrooms and programs serving children in need.

Ensuring that all children’s right to access quality education is fulfilled will take all of us. That action can take many forms, like:

  • Volunteering to read with kids at a school in a low-income neighborhood.
  • Encouraging program leaders at food banks, homeless shelters, afterschool programs and any place that serves families in need to collaborate with organizations that can help bring books to their families.
  • Becoming a mentor to a child in need — and making reading one of your regular activities.
  • Donating — especially on a monthly, sustaining basis — to nonprofits focused on increasing access to books and resources.

Our children want to learn — so much so that they’ll go to court for it.

The children in Gary B. vs. Richard Snyder may have lost their legal battle, but it’s critical that we, the people, not lose sight of the call for help. Our children want to learn — so much so that they’ll go to court for it. We want and need an educated workforce, engaged citizens, prosperous futures, a fair and just society — with full First Amendment rights and fully engaged as voters. Our futures are inextricably intertwined — and what that future looks like is up to us.