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Khara Lewin CNN
Published: 17 July 2012

(CNN) -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has filed what it is calling a "first-of-its-kind" lawsuit against the state, its Department of Education and one Detroit-area school district for allegedly failing to teach students to read at grade level, as mandated by state law and its constitution.

"What's unique about this is that we're focusing in on literacy and the right to read" Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary L. Moss said of the complaint filed last week in state court. "Literacy is the gateway to all other knowledge."

The suit names the Highland Park school district as a defendant, and it seeks to have the state and school district enforce a state law requiring that "a pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months."

Filed as a class action on behalf of eight students who, the ACLU said, represent nearly 1,000 students in the district, the lawsuit cites individual cases of students struggling with basic literacy.

One of the student plaintiffs reportedly failed the state's standardized tests in his fourth, fifth and sixth grade years without receiving "any specialized reading intervention in 4th or 5th grade," the lawsuit says.

Another student plaintiff has, according to the suit, attended Highland Park schools since first grade and after completing eighth grade earlier this year "his reading proficiency level is appropriate for the 2nd or 3rd grade."

Highland Park is one of the worst performing school districts in Michigan, according to the state Department of Education, and its high school currently ranks in the bottom 1% statewide.

"No case ever filed anywhere in the U.S. has addressed a school system in such dire straits." said attorney Mark Rosenbaum, a member of the Michigan ACLU legal team.

"The Highland Park School District is among the lowest achieving school districts in the nation, let alone Michigan," Rosenbaum added in an ACLU news release.

On January 27, less than a month into his first term, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed the first of two emergency managers to take action in the Highland Park school district.

Though unable to comment directly on the suit, Sara Wurfel, spokeswoman for Snyder, said, "Everything we have done and are doing is to ensure that the kids of Highland Park schools get the education they need and deserve."

A statement released Monday by the Michigan Department of Education said: "The Michigan Department of Education has been counseled by our state Attorney's General office to not comment on pending litigation."

No one in the office of state Attorney General Bill Schuette could be reached for comment.

For Moss and the ACLU, the situation and the lawsuit have national significance.

"If kids aren't reading, nothing else is going to come," Moss said. "If we're not preparing our children, there is no way our economy can recover."

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