The subject of reading continues to make headlines. And that’s potentially good news for students everywhere.

In California, a landmark lawsuit brought on behalf of students reading well below grade level settled out of court last week to the tune of $53 million. That money will go towards 75 of the lowest performing elementary schools in the state to help shore up their reading instruction. Those schools were singled out in the lawsuit as ones in critical need of remediation because so many of the students attending them were and still are significantly behind in reading. In fact, the state’s own records show that less than half of all students in third, fourth and fifth grade met standard on California’s state tests.

The lawsuit, filed two years ago by a group of students, teachers and community groups, alleged that students’ low rates of literacy violated their rights under California’s constitution, which mandates that all children must receive equal access to an education. In California, courts have routinely held that students are legally entitled to “equal access to a public education system that will teach them the skills they need to succeed as productive members of modern society.” Here’s the excerpt from the complaint that spells out the reasoning:

“The fundamental right to even the most basic of educations means nothing if it does not also guarantee the right to access literacy. Literacy is an essential building block for all education. A team of experts convened by Defendants State Board of Education and [Tom] Torlakson [former CA State Superintendent of Public Instruction] affirmed that ‘literacy is the key to becoming an independent learner in all the other disciplines.’ Education is a fundamental right in large part because it is required for participation in democratic citizenship and economic self-sufficiency. ‘The purpose of education is not [simply] to endow students with diplomas, but to equip [students] with the substantive knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life.’  

Such ‘knowledge and skills’ necessarily must include the ability to read, write, and comprehend.” 

Ella T. v. State of California, Complaint pp. 12-13.

What will schools receive

The settlement, which still must be approved and funded by the state legislature, provides a block grant which according to Los Angeles Times’ reporters Sonali Kohli and Iris Lee will be used for “literacy coaches, social-emotional learning, bilingual reading specialists, and training teachers on methods to improve school discipline that can disrupt education.” Schools may use the funds to invest in evidence-based literacy practices. If the state legislature doesn’t approve it, the case returns to court.  

As California goes, so goes the nation?

This lawsuit could end up meaning way more than its $53 million settlement. It has the potential to transform how we think about reading as a fundamental right states are obligated to provide. Again, as reported by Kohli and Lee in the Los Angeles Times: “I wouldn’t be surprised if other suits in other states follow and I wouldn’t be surprised if some states and jurisdictions take this as a cautionary tale” and start directing more aid toward helping their neediest students learn to read, [literacy expert and University of Michigan Professor Nell] Duke said.”

The two law firms who filed the suit certainly sound like they’re aiming for bold and sweeping changes.

From Public Counsel: “Today’s settlement is a historic step forward towards affirming the #righttoliteracy for all children in California. We will remain vigilant and continue to push for change; however, today we begin to lay the foundation for building a California education system that gives all children the opportunity to pursue their dreams – to create a better tomorrow for themselves and our communities.”

And from Erik Olson, partner at Morrison & Foerster: “This settlement is a tremendous victory for the courageous families and community leaders who demanded that the State of California fulfill its obligation to provide every child the opportunity to learn to read.”