- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The ceremonial back-to-school rituals are in full swing — new clothes, book bags, school supplies and no-tax shopping. Unfortunately, this school year, some kids will choose not return to the classroom. In fact, according to the America’s Promise Alliance, every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school. “That adds up to more than 1.1 million students per year. Future prospects are dim for young people who don’t graduate high school. Many of those who do graduate, are not prepared for college and work,” the alliance says.

Still others will enter the classroom without having ever opened a book or barely able to read — which subsequently adds to our atrocious dropout rate. Along with the traditional rituals this school season are stepped up efforts to reach out and recapture our youth through literacy. The alliance is sponsoring 50 state and at least 50 city Dropout Prevention Summits to be held by 2010. Actor and activist Hill Harper kicks off the Urban Change Movement in the District on Aug. 16th “to provide 10,000 underprivileged K-12 students with quality book bags filled with school supplies and other life-enhancing materials.”

The striking dichotomy is that while these proactive efforts are being undertaken, Congress (now on vacation) has failed our children with its refusal to re-fund the administration’s most imperative literacy program. The U.S. Department of Education’s Reading First initiative is focused precisely on that. It is geared to needy pre-school and K-3 students, using diagnostic and classroom assessment, accountability and professional development to improve reading achievement. And it is working. But that has apparently been lost on our lawmakers.

Last month, House and Senate panels voted to zero out funding for Reading First in the federal budget for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. According to Education Week: “The program, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, had received $1 billion a year from 2002 to 2007 before getting hit with a 61 percent cut in fiscal 2008.” Earth-to-Congress: Now is not the time to do away with such a crucial program, particularly when reading scores for 4th graders are beginning to show steady improvements. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings notes that “Reading First has done so much to crack the code on how to get kids to read. It would be tragic to cut the nation’s only reading program when so many policymakers and teachers know it’s working to increase achievement.”

While we acknowledge that parents should be their child’s “first” teacher, too many parents are quick to buy Johnny a cellphone instead of school book, it goes without saying that too many students are still starting school with a stacked deck. This initiative, at a minimum, gives them a running start.

Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington, a vocal proponent of literacy first, once observed: “If you can’t read, it’s going to be hard to realize dreams.” Putting a premium on literacy is a moral imperative for parents and politicians, as this nation can’t afford to have one more unrealized dream walk out of the schoolhouse door.

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