California Forum

Schools are California’s biggest line item. So why are so many kids unable to read?

Debra Keyes teaches a class in 2011 at Van Buren Elementary School in Stockton. Van Buren is one of California’s lowest performing schools and a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought in December 2017 by the advocacy firm Public Counsel, charging that California has not done enough about the high number of school children in the state who cannot read. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, file)
Debra Keyes teaches a class in 2011 at Van Buren Elementary School in Stockton. Van Buren is one of California’s lowest performing schools and a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought in December 2017 by the advocacy firm Public Counsel, charging that California has not done enough about the high number of school children in the state who cannot read. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, file) AP

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.

We could argue all day about how realistic it is to prep all students for college, or whether coding or ethnic studies courses should be a required part of public school. But if there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on, it’s that no student – minus those with very severe learning disorders – should leave high school without the ability to read.

Maybe not everyone will chew through Tolstoy’s novels in their spare time, but they should be able to get pleasure out of picking up a book of their choice. They should feel comfortable reading the daily news to become informed citizens, capable of skimming a standard contract, competent at figuring out an instruction manual. Reading is the ultimate tool to more learning, which is why there is a history of libraries turning out self-educated people. If you can read, you can figure out almost anything.

It is not just the school district’s job to ensure that kids are learning at least these rudimentary skills. The state is responsible, too. It is not enough to say, here’s some extra money, now go forth and we hope you do well with it and if not, well, gee, we guess that didn’t work out.

But according to a lawsuit filed against the state, significant numbers of California students can’t do any of these things.

Legal advocacy group Public Counsel contends, on behalf of a group of students and parents, that California has failed to provide the kind of education guaranteed in the state constitution by allowing too many students to drift through their years of school without acquiring adequate literacy skills.

We’re not talking college textbooks here, despite all the lofty talk about graduating students who are ready for college. Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, told the Los Angeles Times that he met with high school students in one of the poorer sections of Los Angeles who couldn’t read well enough to fill out a job application for a minimum-wage burger-flipping job. And it’s not just the kids who started school without English, he said; students who have been talking up a storm in English for years also struggle.

The state likes to point out that it’s providing extra funding to disadvantaged students through the Local Control Funding Formula. At that point, obvious from the term “local control,” the school districts are supposed to take care of things.

This is where the concept of subsidiarity splinters and falls. It is not just the school district’s job to ensure that kids are learning at least these rudimentary skills. The state is responsible, too. It is not enough to say, here’s some extra money, now go forth and we hope you do well with it and if not, well, gee, we guess that didn’t work out.

Generally speaking, lawsuits are a lousy policy-making tool for things that go wrong in the schools. Just because a group doesn’t like some aspect of public education, that doesn’t make it unconstitutional.

This was the problem with the Vergara lawsuit, which unsuccessfully claimed that California laws protecting teacher tenure and seniority rights were unconstitutional. The laws are in some ways bad policy, but it’s slightly ludicrous to claim that whether a teacher gets tenure after two years instead of three or four is a key factor in robbing students of their constitutional right to an education.

There are times, though, when the courts must step in when students’ rights are ignored by bureaucrats and legislators. Iconic example: the Williams lawsuit, which successfully took on the state’s failure to ensure that low-income students had equal access to items as essential as textbooks and safe, decent campuses.

Literacy is just as basic, and maybe more: What good are textbooks if kids struggle to read them? The lawsuit points to a particular elementary school in Los Angeles where only 10 of the 180 students met the state English standards on the standardized tests given last year. That probably isn’t as bad in reality as it sounds – kids who aren’t proficient might still be halfway decent readers – but it’s a sign that something is wrong. And remember that proficiency tends to slide in middle and high schools.

It’s not as though state education officials aren’t aware of the problem. In 2012, a group of its own literacy experts drew up a report on how to tackle California’s dire shortcomings in this area. “The critical need to address the literacy development of California children and students cannot be underestimated,” the report said. It called for “improved approaches to literacy instruction” as an “immediate and central focus of California’s educational system.”

Rosenbaum contends that the report basically sat on the digital equivalent of a dusty shelf; no one followed up with those immediate improved approaches, including stronger curriculum with a track record of working, and improved teacher training.

The state constitution promises a free and public education for all California students. Strongly implied in that promise, the courts have found, is a guarantee of at least a decent level of quality. You can’t really call it an education if the state isn’t going to the mat to get almost all students reading. Even back in the days of the one-room schoolhouses built by small communities of settlers, literacy was an expected outcome of attending school.

Many of the U.S. slave states prohibited teaching slaves how to read and write, a recognition of how powerful those abilities are and how they can be used to introduce new ideas, build up citizenry and empower the downtrodden. It’s time to dust off that old report in which the California admitted its failings; if the state hasn’t followed through on all of those recommendations, it cannot begin to defend itself.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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