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Literacy is a Fundamental Right

By Alicia Levi, President and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental

September heralds a new school year and with it, the thoughts of many parents turn to their children’s education, and another year of preparing them for their future. Reading and access to books and other educational resources are considered a critical part of any child’s education. In fact, a strong foundation in literacy is so essential to any individual realizing their full potential that it is at the center of a growing national discussion; is literacy a fundamental right?

In Washington, DC , we just celebrated the National Book Festival. This annual event, hosted by the Library of Congress, calls to mind one of my favorite quotes from our current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, “Thomas Jefferson, the Library of Congress’s spiritual founder, wrote of the pursuit of happiness. I like to think that literacy is fundamental to that pursuit. So many doors are closed to those who cannot read. Everyone in this world has a right to happiness and with that comes the right to read.” Or, as Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

As the head of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation’s leading voice for children’s literacy, I agree and believe that literacy is a fundamental right for every citizen. Literacy is the skill that opens doors to a world of opportunity and possibilities. Our nation’s Declaration of Independence claims that all men are created equal, that they are entitled to certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Too many of our citizens are not able to enjoy the full measure of these rights because they do not enjoy the fundamental right of literacy.

The ability to read is the great equalizer. During National Literacy Month, I call on our nation’s leaders, and on everyone who can read this, to ensure that we deliver on this fundamental right for all Americans by ensuring that every child in this country learns to read. The shocking truth of the literacy crisis in America plays out every day from classrooms – where 25 million children are not proficient readers – to courtrooms – where Detroit Public Schools students recently sued state officials over the issue of literacy as a protected constitutional human right. While the court found that literacy was not protected under the constitution, Judge Stephen J. Murphy III wrote that “when a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, that child suffers lasting injury – and so does society.” A similar lawsuit claim was made in so-called "right to read" litigation that the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed in 2012, alleging Highland Park students had been denied a benefit guaranteed under the State of Michigan’s Constitution.

As students nationwide settle into a new school year, I ask every citizen to join us in our quest to ensure that every child enjoys their fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of literacy – there is no greater gift that we can give. To learn more about how you can provide children access to books and supporting literacy resources, visit