A Teacher reading to 3 studentsIt might come as a surprise to you that literacy rates are crashing everywhere in the nation. In one particularly embarrassing incident, however, the state of California is being sued by a group of students and ex-teachers over the state’s failure to produce an even marginally-acceptable rate of basic literacy among the graduates of its school systems.

The lawsuit alleges that the state of California has signally failed in its duty to educate children and that the state is aware of its shortcomings as a result of the 2012 issuance of the so-called Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Plan (SRCL Plan). Given that the state has had a minimum of five years to implement its own plans in accordance with its own Federally-funded report, the lawsuit seeks judicial relief in the form of an order to the California Department of Education to address what is described in its own words as a “literacy crisis”.

This relief is sought in the form of a number of directives for the state to institute policies and procedures that are widely understood to combat illiteracy through the use of a combination of screening and monitoring which will track literary progress throughout the school year. This is to be coupled with a program of mandatory interventions that will head off further declines in student achievement.

“In terms of working with the district or working with the school,” noted attorney Mark Rosenbaum, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers from advocacy group Public Counsel, “they haven’t done anything.” He also observed that this was “… in full view of the state” and that the problem has “persisted” for years.

While the state Department of Education has declined any direct comment on the matter pending formal receipt of the lawsuit, they have responded to its assertions in a more general way. The state has, in their words, “one of the most ambitious programs in the nation” to address the needs of low-income students.

The state points to $10 billion dollars spent annually in additional funding for ESL students, children from foster homes, and those from low-income backgrounds. In addition, they point to the three school districts specifically named in the proceedings and note that all three of those districts are scheduled to receive extra funds in the upcoming school year. This funding is not in response to the lawsuit but rather represents a general effort by the Department of Education to address shortcomings in these and 225 other districts statewide.

While the direct issues before the court involve funding and commitment to programs that will make a difference, the larger and more fundamental issue is that of the state’s responsibility to children who are compelled to go to school. The reasoning for this mandate is found, in California’s case, in Article 9, Section 1 of the state constitution, which enjoins “a general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people…” as the justification for which mandatory participation is required.

This case is therefore likely to shed light on a state’s obligation to achieve a tangible level of results as opposed to just allocating a certain sum of money, however large, to the problem and being content with the outcome. It is this question which has led to so much national interest being directed towards what is, in effect, a local school issue in a single state. The theoretical ramifications of any wide-ranging ruling against the state of California are likely to have large nationwide impact. Many other players in the general public education arena are watching this case far more closely than one might otherwise suspect.