- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

By now, D.C. Superintendent Clifford Janey should have in his hands a bit of chilling data: “Of the 469,000 D.C. residents age 16 and older living in the District of Columbia today, an estimated 36 percent function at the lowest level of literacy.” The common term for such people is functional illiterates, and the common denominator is the city’s troubled D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).

While there are plenty of data from reports small and large that prove D.C. schools have failed at least two generations of residents, this latest is courtesy of Tony Williams, who, as mayor, launched the public-private D.C. Adult Literacy Initiative. After nearly 18 months of research, the University of the District of Columbia’s State Education Agency released the State of Adult Literacy Report, and it’s bad news with a (sort of) good-news twist. The socioeconomic data reinforce what policy-makers of all stripes suspected all along: Functionally illiterate D.C. adults are mostly black or Hispanic, in the low-income bracket (if they earn any income), and they are living in either rental or subsidized housing. The mayor and other concerned stakeholders knew that as long as those trends remain unchanged, the city loses jobs and money to the suburbs. They also knew that illiteracy touched each of the city’s eight wards, but not to what degree. Now, they know that and more.

Indeed, the amount of money invested in the three-year literacy initiative ($20 million) hardly addresses the depth and breadth of the District’s illiteracy problem, which the report labels “startling and pervasive.” Thousands of young dropouts, English-language learners and older adults finally committed to earning their GED have been academically and economically aided by the initiative. And that’s a good thing, too. However, investing in human capital on the front end would be more beneficial in the short and long term.

The culprit of illiteracy, of course, is the one-size-fits-all, underperforming D.C. school system, which for too long has trapped students and their families. Fortunately, while charter schools, vouchers and other scholarship opportunities have helped tens of thousands of families escaped the broken D.C. system, more obviously must be done. Why should taxpayers fund 12-14 years of reading, writing and arithmetic for children and teen-agers, only to have to pay all over again once they become fully grown adults?

It’s good to know the city’s leaders are steadfast about working on the adult literacy problem. But let’s not lessen the pressure on D.C. Public Schools to set things right the first time around.

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