Wright: Championing Children for Whom Reading and Learning Are
by Brent Staples, New York Times, June 26, 2003
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How old are you? Ninety-nine percent of us answer this question
reflexively, without having to think. A reporter who put this
question to Peter W. D. Wright several years ago was stunned
when Mr. Wright, an education lawyer, resorted to a calculator
before answering. When I asked his age over the phone earlier
this month, he called to his wife - "Pam, how old am I?" - then
said: "I am 57. I have trouble with math."
Mr. Wright also has trouble with reading and writing. It all
stems from a familiar learning disability that affects millions
of children. The disability seems to center in the part of the
brain that processes language, making it difficult for even
genius-caliber children to learn the sounds that correspond to
the letters of the alphabet. The simplest rules of language
elude many of them. Ask for a word that rhymes with "cat," for
example, and they may have no idea what the question means.
Mr. Wright was one of the lucky ones. His condition was
diagnosed early, and he was placed with reading teachers who
taught him to manage his disability. As a result, he has become
one of the top education lawyers of his era. He has argued
hundreds of cases. His most famous victory was in the landmark
Supreme Court case Florence County School District Four v.
Carter, which extended the rights of learning-disabled children
who wish to go to private school at public expense. The 1993
ruling held that public schools that fail to educate these
children no longer have a say in their educations.
Critics argue that the Carter decision has created a "voucher
program for the rich," allowing parents to give their children a
private school education on the taxpayers' tab. Lawsuits arising
from the decision have placed a strain on poor urban systems,
draining money that would otherwise be spent on needy students.
But they have also focused attention on the fact that schools
are failing at their primary function - teaching children to
The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act was supposed
to provide a wider and more practical fix by upgrading the
teacher corps and requiring schools to teach reading in ways
that are known to reach non-automatic readers. All this requires
a significant investment. Unfortunately, the federal government
has so far shown little appetite for getting the job done.
Instead, Congress has begun to lash out at lawyers like Mr.
Wright who have made a crusade of suing school districts that
continue to fail learning-impaired children.
What smacks you right in the face is that most learning-disabled
children today face the same obstacles and ill-prepared teachers
that Peter Wright faced when he started kindergarten in 1951.
His first grade teacher told his parents that the boy had "a
good mind," but complained that he could not keep his mind on
work. Mr. Wright remembers being picked on by peers in
elementary school and humiliated by the staff. Teachers openly
ridiculed him when he wrote letters backward or mispronounced
Most children treated this way drop out, then end up jobless or
in jail. Mr. Wright's parents, however, were ahead of their
time. They sought out Diana Hanbury King, who later become
legendary for her work as a tutor in the Orton-Gillingham style
of reading instruction, a phonics-based approach that allows
learning- disabled children to absorb the rules that govern
language while learning the sounds associated with the letters
of the alphabet.
People who get help after suffering humiliation in school often
grow up to be champions of children who remind them of their
younger selves. This is what happened to Mr. Wright. He went to
law school after working as a probation officer and finding that
many of the people in his caseload were teenagers who had
dropped out of school with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
The defining moment in his professional life came when he
encountered Shannon Carter, a South Carolina teenager with an
undiagnosed learning disability who arrived at high school
virtually illiterate. Labeled lazy and held up to scorn, Shannon
became suicidal. Shannon's parents placed her in private school,
then sued the public schools for the cost of tuition.
The Carter ruling opened the floodgates for similar lawsuits,
many of which have been brought on behalf of children who have
attended school for as long as seven or eight years without
learning to read. School districts are angry at having to pay
the legal fees of families that prevail in court. The House
recently passed a bill that would allow the states to limit
legal fees in these cases, but the provision is unlikely to
succeed in the Senate.
The courts have so far beaten back attempts to strip disabled
children of legal representation in cases where the school
systems have clearly failed to obey federal disability law.
Although some lawyers represent indigent clients in anticipation
of collecting fees when they win the case, most cases are
settled before they go to trial. The districts sometimes resolve
the problem by agreeing to train teachers in how to instruct
It would be nice if Congress could stop fixating on the lawyers
and focus on the fact that so many children are moving through
the public schools without learning to read. The most effective
way to limit these lawsuits is to adopt the now well-known
methods of reading instruction that are used in the private
schools where Carter children end up. No one would be happier
than Peter Wright to see an end to this particular line of legal
To learn more
about Pete Wright, visit
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