- The Washington Times - Monday, February 1, 2016


Dolly Parton — yes, that Dolly Parton — knows it takes a lot of imagination growing up in rural Appalachia, as she did.

She also knows how important child literacy is, having been the fourth of 12 siblings in a dirt-poor family and grown up in a business world where literacy means more than merely mouthing words on a sheet of music or pretending to understand a contract.

So she put her money where her mouth and heart are, and started something called Imagination Library in 1995 in her childhood neck of the woods, East Tennessee. Her goal is simple: Mail books to children’s homes. Free books. Age-appropriate books. Books that someday may aid younger and older siblings, and illiterate parents.

A nugget from The Huffington Post in 2013: “According to the Department of Justice, ‘The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.’ The stats back up this claim: 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.”

D.C. has been spinning it’s wheels battling literacy, and now officials are getting on the Dolly Parton literacy bandwagon.

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This week, D.C. authorities are scheduled to announce the Books From Birth program, an effort similar to the one in several regions of Tennessee, where D.C. Council member Charles Allen saw firsthand how his niece reacted when she received her book in the mail.

In the vein of the Tennessee program, the books are free, shipped via mail, and simply require registration. There are no income requirements, either.

The city’s program will be operated by the D.C. Public Library, which means that it can easily fall prey to red tape, thievery and funding problems — regardless of how well-intended the program.

“The Books from Birth program shall provide books to all registered children, mailed to the home residence of the child at the rate of one per month, from the month following the child’s birth or enrollment in the program to the child’s 5th birthday,” reads the bill.

A major concern is the “free” part.

Public libraries already provide free books and services (if you have a library card, of course). The new responsibility of the Books From Birth bureaucracy will likely need a boost from tax dollars, but officials aren’t discussing dollars and cents just yet.

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However, look at what’s listed as numero uno for funding: “Funds appropriated by the District” — legalese for public money.

Look, putting free books directly into the hands of young people is a promising incentive and seemingly good public policy. Being able to read, write and comprehend are powerful tools in this world of ours.

We know about America’s functional illiteracy problem. How many stories have you read about teens who can’t read above a fourth- or fifth-grade level? Or adults in the self-checkout lines at stores who cannot help themselves because they cannot comprehend the words on the screen? Or college students who have to attend expensive remedial classes because they are illiterate?

Or how about all these tax-funded programs that offer “free” resume, application and other job-readiness programs?

Mr. Allen’s Books From Birth plan has the full weight of the 13-member council behind it, and Mayor Muriel Bowser will surely make an appearance at the news announcement later this week to make sure the general public knows she wants the, well, general public to pay for the program.

I’m not sure D.C. government can efficiently and effectively deliver such a program, however. The city would be responsible for deciding the titles of books, ordering the books, paying for the books, delivering the books, and making sure the Books From Birth program is boosting literacy.

That’s an awful lot. Besides, the public school system has been failing in the literacy department for decades.

I’ve got my fingers crossed on this one that D.C. Books From Birth only replicates the best practices from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Tennessee.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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