Imagine you're at the beach, and you see a ten-year-old child drowning in the ocean. Do you: a) do whatever it takes to save him, or b) do nothing and instead plan a program to teach swimming lessons to six-year olds?
Faced with a similar situation-tens of thousands of Arizona children are being sucked out to sea by the riptide of illiteracy-Arizona's new governor seems to be opting for the latter. Arizona has the highest dropout rate in the nation. Yet despite this emergency, the new governor has no plans to help students who have been failed by the public schools. Instead she proposes new early learning programs to benefit future generations of children.
In her State of the State address, the governor called for universal pre-school and all-day kindergarten. These proposals are designed to meet her campaign goal that every child must learn to read by the third grade. The efficacy of universal preschool and all-day kindergarten are very much open to debate, but universal literacy is a goal we all can support. The fact that this goal is still a hot political topic in 2003, though, serves as a reminder of the plight of the thousands of students currently slipping through public schools without ever learning to read.
What should be done to help these illiterate students? A coalition of state lawmakers has proposed a creative solution: an emergency rescue program for illiterate children in public schools.
The proposal the "A+ Literacy Passport" program would provide a money-back guarantee for public education. If a child hasn't been taught to read in public school, the child should be allowed to transfer to an alternative public, private, or charter school. How better to demonstrate the state's commitment to universal literacy than to allow illiterate children immediate emergency access to the best instruction possible?
Arizona already has some compensatory instruction programs for remedial students. For example, English learners failing to make adequate progress on standardized exams have access to compensatory instruction, such as after school programs. But why stop there? Remedial students should be granted the opportunity to get the best possible instruction throughout the entire school day.
The money-back guarantee of a literacy passport will demonstrate that the state recognizes the emergency and is willing to do whatever is necessary to save each and every child from the lifelong burden of illiteracy.
Since "A+ Literacy Passport" scholarships would allow children to choose emergency instruction in both public and private schools, critics will charge that this program gives up on "the system." But the more important concern is the students. And the system is failing them. Too many dreams have been extinguished by waiting for improvement within the system rather than focusing on the children.
Of course, given the state budget crunch, any new legislative proposal must be accompanied by a candid assessment of the program's likely fiscal impact. Fortunately, the emergency A+ Literacy Passports will actually save the state money. Scholarships will only be given to illiterate public school students and will be capped at 75 percent of what would have been spent had the child remained in the original public school. The state will save the difference roughly $1,000 for every struggling student transferring from public to private school. Not a bad deal: helping illiterate children while easing the state deficit.
Of course, the value of this emergency program can't be measured on state budget ledgers. Reading and writing are basic skills critical to success in American schools and American society. Mastering basic skills puts a child on the road to opportunity and success; illiteracy relegates a child to a lifetime at the back of the line in an increasingly skilled labor force.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently issued a report that confirmed the economic value of education. According to the report, the average annual salary of a high school dropout is $18,900; a high school graduate, $25,900; a college graduate, $45,400; a professional degree graduate, $99,300. Imagine how different Arizona would be if thousands of illiterate high school dropouts were instead successful college graduates, strengthening Arizona's economy and improving the community?
Long-term plans are needed, but we also need immediate action to help the children who are already heading toward a life of illiteracy. If you're reading this page, it means that someone taught you how to read and gave you the key that unlocks a world of knowledge and opportunity. Does any child deserve less?
Dan Lips is president of the Arizona Dream Foundation, www.ArizonaDream.org, and an associate scholar with the Goldwater Institute.