On Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in a rare unanimous vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a deaf Michigan student who sued his school system for providing him with an inadequate education. This precedent should now be employed to serve all American students currently being let down by their public schools.
Miguel Luna Perez spent twelve years in the Sturgis public school system, where, despite coming home with A’s and B’s on his report card, he was never on track to earn a high school diploma.
Perez was assigned an aide who did not know sign language, and left him alone for hours at a time. At the end of his schooling, he had not learned to communicate. Instead of the diploma his family had been expecting, he was issued a “certificate of completion.”
Roman Martinez, the lawyer who argued Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, said in a statement: “We are thrilled with today’s decision. The court’s ruling vindicates the rights of students with disabilities to obtain full relief when they suffer discrimination.”
I am thrilled, as well. But I would like to see the ruling expanded.
Low Standards Failing the Masses
What about the students across America who are not classified as disabled, who also come home with A’s and B’s on their report cards, and who are also going unserved by their public school system?
President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, wrote about these students in his book, “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.”:
A Nationwide Failure
Calvin Williams, a rising high-school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level… The most insidious part of the whole thing was that he didn’t know what he didn’t know… Perhaps worse still, the school and his teachers also didn’t know that Calvin was so far behind. As far as they were concerned, Calvin was an actual B student. The big lies are the ones that the system tells to parents about how their kids are learning. Sixty-eight percent of community college students and 40 percent of public four-year college students take at least one high school-level class because they’re not ready for college coursework.
These statistics are repeated across the country. In New York City, where I live and have my third child in a public high school, more students may be graduating than ever before. But, according to a study by the state comptroller's office, only 57 percent could be considered “college ready.”
With the majority of those non-college-ready students being low income and of color, can’t they also be considered to “suffer from discrimination” as much as the students with disabilities invoked in the Supreme Court case?
Shouldn’t all students have the right to sue for damages and “obtain full relief” when they have been mistreated and betrayed by their school system?
As it stands now, there is literally no penalty for a school system that hands a high school diploma to a student unprepared not just for college, but for holding a job, or for being able to support themselves. We know that it’s happening. We have years upon years of data to prove that it’s happening. And yet no one is being held accountable.
If all students who graduated not college ready could sue their district the way students with disabilities have now been given the green light to do, it could be a game-changer.
Currently, in NYC, under federal law, families of students with disabilities can sue to have the city pay their child’s private school tuition by alleging that the public schools are not meeting their child’s needs. (Though the current administration is pushing back by allocating money to… pay for more lawyers to fight families. They assert that the money spent on private schools could be better used in the public school system, so they are diverting money from the public school budget to prove it!)
Accountability Can Bring Change
Part of the Perez family’s settlement with their district was “officials agreeing to pay for additional schooling and sign language instruction.”
Why not extend that to all students who are not being taught adequately?
Maybe if America’s school systems actually had to face some consequences for not educating students, they would have motivation to improve? Or, at least, motivation to not wait until the end of thirteen years of school to admit that maybe something went wrong and trying to remediate it then?
Maybe if they knew they could be sued over their failing results at the conclusion of the process they might intervene to fix matters earlier?
In 2022, only one quarter of NYC 8th graders were certified proficient in math based on state tests. In addition, even NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks was forced to concede that “65% of Black and Brown children… never achieve reading proficiency in the system…. It’s a system that does not work well for far too many kids.”
Don’t these students deserve relief, too? Why shouldn’t they be able to sue to receive the free and appropriate education that is currently only enshrined for students with disabilities? They are clearly not getting it now!
Isn’t it discriminatory against students without disabilities that they are not entitled to the same rights?
This month’s Supreme Court case is a wonderful precedent for students with disabilities. Now let's use it to push for the rights of all students who are being mis-served.