Literacy is the foundation of a strong economy for our nation. Without students who have a passion for reading, we do not have doctors, scientists, engineers or teachers.
We continuously hear about the need to improve the nation’s schools, but why does that really matter? Because our ultimate long-term investment is the nation’s children, and every dollar spent grooming them into the future workforce benefits every American. In short, literacy programs are the ultimate job training program.
With all of that in mind, you’d be surprised to know that the nation’s literacy programs, the most fundamental element of our education and economic systems, have been gutted through federal budget cuts.
One of the victims of these short-sighted cuts is Reading Is Fundamental. Over the past 44 years, RIF has distributed 380 million free, high-quality books to the nation’s neediest children. In March, the organization lost its annual federal funding of $25 million. A true public-private partnership, the organization serves 4 million children across every U.S. state and territory annually with the help of more than 400,000 volunteers from Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and other partners that contribute 25 percent of the organization’s funding. By eliminating this $25 million, Congress has eliminated a much larger national program.
If being zeroed out of the budget wasn’t enough, the House Education and Workforce Committee approved the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act.
The “new priorities” are clear: More than 40 education programs have been eliminated — including close to $400 million that had been specifically targeted to literacy development for children from birth through grade 12. In 2009, just two-thirds of U.S. fourth-graders performed at or above the basic reading level, the lowest National Assessment of Educational Progress achievement level, and 15-year-old students in the United States rank 14th out of 34 countries in reading.
Looking at RIF alone, the effects will be devastating. When nearly two-thirds of low-income families own no books, these children will now be cut off from book ownership, a fundamental part of developing a passion for reading.
And turning to libraries is not always a viable substitute. Many public and school libraries are being forced to close or reduce their operating hours. Owning a book, a book that the child selects himself, has proven results to inspire and improve academic achievement.
Our nation faces a real literacy crisis that cannot afford to lose the network of more than 400,000 volunteers in 17,000 locations who are committed to literacy, our children’s futures and RIF programs. With local matching funds to help run local RIF programs, RIF embodies the exact public-private partnership we know that works and helps drive a return on federal investment. Without federal support, this leading nationwide youth and family literacy organization will begin to be dismantled.
Yet, the course can be reversed if we act swiftly. The Senate has not acted yet, and it could restore the funding for RIF and other critical education programs.
This is about investing in our shared future, ensuring that we can inspire American children to reach for the top and providing them with the skills they need to lead us into the future. We can do better, and it starts with instilling in our children a passion for reading.
Carol Rasco is president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental.