Is recognizing a “right to literacy” the solution to improved reading outcomes in America?

Groups in at least three states think so. There are currently lawsuits in Michigan, New Mexico, and California seeking to establish that school districts have violated a student’s “right to literacy” by providing inadequate learning conditions and insufficient school funding. The “right to literacy,” they argue, requires better conditions and more funding.

Setting aside the supposed “right to literacy,” it’s understandable why these families are frustrated with the outcomes in their children’s assigned public schools.

According to the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress, only 29 percent of California eighth-graders are at or above proficient in math, and 32 percent achieved that level in reading. Thirty-one percent of Michigan eighth-graders are proficient in math and 34 percent in reading. New Mexico scores even lower, with only 21 percent proficiency in math and 24 percent in reading.

Public schools are assigned based on ZIP code, and the process of transferring to a school outside of one’s zoned area can be very difficult.

As it stands, all 50 states have compulsory attendance laws, meaning every child is required to attend school between the ages of 6 and 17 (with ages slightly varying by state). In most states, children must attend their assigned school unless their parents have the ability to homeschool them or pay private school tuition—in addition to paying taxes to support the government-assigned schools.

Because school attendance is mandated, and because most children attend assigned public schools, any incentive for improvement on the part of the public system is mitigated.

This issue is particularly acute in the three states where these suits are underway. There are no private school-choice options (vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts) in California, New Mexico, or Michigan. Save for some charter school options, parents who cannot afford to pay twice for their child’s education are largely at the whim of the government-assigned public system.

The petitioners’ proposed solutions in the three states range from increasing funding and programs and making sure teachers are trained to teach the curriculum, to providing additional classroom resources and ensuring the conditions necessary for learning. Although the petitioners’ grievances are understandable, research shows that increased funding does not necessarily lead to improved educational outcomes, and the funding is sometimes even used fraudulently by school districts.

The solution is not more government intervention, mandates, or funding. The solution is allowing parents and families to leave failing schools, or any school that doesn’t meet their child’s learning needs.

There are a host of factors that go into student success. Putting parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding how best to foster that success provides the best chance for maximizing a child’s life goals.

Empowering parents with the opportunity to enroll their child in a school of their choice, or utilizing their child’s state per-pupil funding to customize their child’s education in a way that best fits their needs through education savings accounts, is a far better means of ensuring students can access an effective education that is the right fit for them.

By giving funds to students and not schools, families will be empowered to choose the schools or education providers that best help their children—whether it’s in reading or any other subject.

Inventing a “right to literacy” is not what will make a difference in student learning. The best way to achieve an improvement is by empowering parents to choose how and where their children are educated.