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Eight Detroit area public school students are returning to class this week. They do so as plaintiffs against a school system they say has failed them. Their families and the ACLU charge that the Highland Park school system has denied them the right to learn to read, and that it and the state have a responsibility to fix that.
Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports.
SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: Michelle Johnson has five kids in Highland Park schools. You can often spot her family's white, full-size van outside one of her kids' schools, where she likes to check in on things. Her husband drives because she can't. He lowers the wheelchair lift so she can steer her motorized chair out onto the sidewalk.
MICHELLE JOHNSON: Even have to ride around with two wheelchairs because the schools are not handicapped accessible.
HULETT: But Johnson has a more profound grievance with the schools here. Her daughter is heading into the 12th grade, but she can only read at about a fourth grade level.
JOHNSON: It's heartbreaking every morning when you get up and people look in your face and say, oh, that's that lady, her daughter can't read.
HULETT: Johnson says she noticed her daughter struggling a few years ago and wanted her to repeat the eighth grade.
JOHNSON: They wouldn't do that. They moved her onto the ninth. She failed some of her ninth grade classes. They still passed her onto the 10th.
HULETT: And attorneys for the ACLU say Johnson's daughter isn't alone. They point to state data showing that only a quarter of sixth and seventh graders here in this district passed the state's reading exam last year.
MARK ROSENBAUM: I think this is one of the most important lawsuits in the history of the country when it comes to basic educational rights.
HULETT: That's Mark Rosenbaum, who's representing Johnson's daughter and the other plaintiffs through the ACLU. The lawsuit accuses the state of failing to enforce a Michigan law that says children who do poorly on standardized reading tests, which are given in the fourth or seventh grades, have to get remedial help to bring them up to grade level. Rosenbaum is asking a judge to enforce that law.
ROSENBAUM: The fact is that this is the first right to read case, but it won't be the last. And the reality is that there are children throughout Michigan and throughout the country whose ZIP code is determining their educational opportunities.
HULETT: No one from the school district concedes failures when it comes to remedial education. And to muddy the waters further, there's been a huge upheaval in the administration. The state has appointed an emergency manager to fix the district's troubled finances. This summer, that state appointee turned the entire district over to a charter school operator. That charter company, the Leona Group, has now been added as a defendant in the lawsuit. While Leona Group officials won't talk directly about the court case, Pamela Williams, the superintendent in charge of this new charter school system, says things will change. She promises that going forward, any student who does poorly on state exams or the district's own assessments will get prompt remedial help.
PAMELA WILLIAMS: What we're going to do is to press the restart button, and when students come in, we are going to gather baseline data and then go from there.
HULETT: The ACLU's Mark Rosenbaum says those are great promises but...
ROSENBAUM: That's a long way from saying that the resources, the wherewithal and the capabilities and capacity are present in this charter.
HULETT: For their part, state officials are declining to comment on this lawsuit. They argue in court filings that the state constitution gives local districts full control over schools. But to plaintiffs, that smacks of trying to have it both ways. They argue that when the state took over the district, it was a drastic step and an acknowledgement that the school system has failed here and that it is the state's job to fix it. The judge in the case has scheduled a hearing for next month. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.