New Legal Article Explores Madison's Reading Crisis

Madison's School District Is Well-Resourced, but Has Literacy Gaps in Line with Poorer Districts

According to a recent federal court decision, the ability to read, write, comprehend and analyze critical texts is a foundational skill that individuals must develop in order to obtain higher education, engage in political spheres, and exercise their democratic rights.

This recent ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals essentially means that access to basic literacy is now recognized as a fundamental, constitutional right. The 6th Circuit Court also declared that the United States Constitution guarantees a “basic minimum education” and that must start with access to basic literacy.

But thousands of K-12 students in America, and incarcerated adults, remain functionally illiterate. Even in well-funded cities like Madison, Wisconsin most Black and Brown children continue to read well below grade level. Literacy experts and education researchers around the country project low reading scores will continue to cause mass incarceration and other racial disparities.


Published in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change , a new case study by Mckenna Kohlenberg dissects Madison’s reading crisis. Kohlenberg is a law student and education masters candidate at UW. Her paper offers practical solutions and uses many of the same legal arguments deliberated in the 6th Circuit Court case.

Titled “Booked but Can’t Read,” Kolenberg’s research points out that in Madison “at least 85% of Black fourth graders currently attending the city’s public schools are four times more likely than their peers to drop out, and two-thirds will end up in prison or on welfare.”

Additionally, according to Kohlenberg, it is expected that “a majority of 166 Black boys who enrolled in fourth grade last fall will spend more time incarcerated than in school learning and becoming functionally literate.”

Kohlenberg’s paper finds these statistics have been consistent for at least the past 12 years. Her new case study emphasizes an often-talked-about issue commonly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. It highlights ways this phenomenon subjugates and essentially sentences students from underrepresented groups, especially Black men. “Booked but Can’t Read” also details how and why school-to-prison pipelines reinforce racial hierarchies in modern America.

While the Kohlenberg paper uses Madison as an example, it is only one of several case studies that expose racialized illiteracy in communities across the nation. What makes “Booked but Can’t Read” unique is that its focus is on Madison, a city where per-student spending is relatively high.

Kohlenberg argues that progress for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds will be difficult until resources are allocated properly. Viewing basic literacy as a fundamental right is therefore necessary if society means to tackle racial disparities and inequalities.

In a recent interview with The Capital Times , Kohlenberg says “I use Madison as a case study, but ultimately what I’m asking is for the federal government to establish this fundamental right...for students across the country, no matter where they live.”

Disciplinary actions in local schools often draw scrutiny in Madison and elsewhere. Research shows school discipline policies can disproportionally funnel students of color into “the system” and ultimately lead to incarceration. Kohlenberg’s research demonstrates that a lack of quality education and childhood literacy is another major factor.

“In cities like Madison, the status quo’s rhetoric of equity and inclusion fosters popular perception that all students have adequate access to basic educational opportunity, while daily practices in the city’s institutions continue reinforcing racial hierarchies,” Kohlenberg wrote.

Despite recent court decisions , disparities in education persist and continue to limit the ability of people of color, particularly young black men, to exercise their fundamental rights. The Kohlenberg paper suggests that a lack of access to literacy and adequate education at an early age for young students of color ultimately creates higher risks for these individuals. A downward spiral is created: students become victims of mass incarceration and are subsequently prohibited from engaging in political processes such as voting.

[Sources: The Capital Times ; Isthmus; N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change; Simpson Street Free Press ]

This is very interesting and well written. Such an important topic. Congrats Virginia. – Shoko Miyagi , UW-Madison (2020-09-03 10:36)
This is important news. Thank for getting the information to the public. – Tyler , Verona High School (2021-07-23 17:50)