07/25/2012 04:08 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2012

A Right to Read

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It is painful to read this statement, written by an ACLU client -- a seventh-grade student in the Highland Park school district. Although he attends school regularly and has not been diagnosed with any special learning disability, he reads at a first grade level but has never received any individualized reading intervention or remedial instruction.

Last week we filed a "right to read" lawsuit on behalf of the 970+ children in this district, a district in which 90 percent of the students, by eleventh grade, are not reading proficient and 100 percent are failing science and social studies, as measured by the Michigan Merit Exam. How could this happen?

The test scores are clear: it gets harder and harder to catch up. And if kids aren't learning to read, then they aren't reading to learn. In the ACLU lawsuit, we ask that all those responsible for public education use research-based methods that are rigorously administered by well trained and supported professionals. We ask that they put trained teachers in the classrooms. We ask that they provide each child with the books they need and let them take them home. We ask that they provide safe and clean classrooms, bathrooms and hallways. We ask the court to decide that if the mandate to provide a public education to our children is to mean anything at all, it must mean that these children have the right to learn how to read.

No doubt that many, many well-meaning people have been worrying and working to make public education better. But I am struck by the extent to which those efforts have been dominated by arguments about governance and structure with far less attention to the kinds of programs and academic interventions needed to remedy a district where the children cannot read. As one educator said to me after hearing that the district had put in place a reading intervention program called Reading 180 this last year: "It's going to take the 10 years for them to figure out that they didn't do it right."

No doubt that the system of governance for education is problematic. We can point fingers at local school boards, systems of school financing, multi-layered state agencies, superintendents, teachers, teacher unions, governors and lobbyists for any number of interests. And, more and more, reformers are starting the conversation of how we can best integrate our knowledge about the importance of early childhood education and need to rethink a framework -- that of K-12 -- that no longer makes sense.

While the good news is that education reformers are putting up for discussion the question of whether "old school" boundaries still work in this day and age, the bad news is that governance reform alone is not the answer. In Highland Park, the State recently announced it would turn the district over to a charter operator. Well, in the spirit of the Wizard of Oz's Glinda, the "Good Witch," we should be asking: are you a good charter or a bad charter? There is no magic bullet without a clear and specific commitment to implement the legislative mandate in the "right to read" law.

On this point, state law is very specific: "A pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade [MEAP] 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."

And for those who want to blame the parents, rest assured that there is plenty of blame to go around. It's our job now to do right by these kids.