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March 2, 2020

Illiteracy — A True Denial of Civil Rights

It’s National Reading Month, but many Americans are left behind in literacy.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” —Frederick Douglas

Americans can’t celebrate their love for books during National Reading Month without also questioning the literacy of our most vulnerable citizens — our youth.

The argument for school choice grows stronger as more research outlines the roadblocks to literacy in our public schools.

According to the latest data administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), nationally, only 35% of fourth graders read at a level that is proficient or above. In my home state of Tennessee, as well as in Hamilton County where my family resides, the numbers average about the same, with little over a third reading above the aforementioned level. Pay a visit to an eighth-grade classroom and the numbers don’t get any better. According to the NAEP data, nationally, only 32 of students could read at a proficient level.

The statistics go on to suggest that students who are “socioeconomically disadvantaged” — including African Americans and Hispanics — show a trend of underperforming in literacy compared to their Asian and Caucasian counterparts.

Why does this matter? According to a study published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, if children cannot read by the fourth grade, not only are they four times more likely to drop out of high school but nearly half of the classroom material will be “incomprehensible.”

But what you won’t see are headlines and articles highlighting this state of emergency in our education system. Instead, you’ll read social-media campaigns about how students are exceeding key “improvement” measures (that of course obfuscates whether these children are actually academically competent).

Our kids can’t read, yet in Hamilton County the school board approved a new four-year contract renewal for current superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson, which also comes with a promised 2.5% pay increase for teachers.

By this logic, you could go into a five-star restaurant, order a sirloin steak, receive chicken strips instead, and still pay a premium and a tip. The order is wrong, yet we must still pay for it somehow. Illiteracy is not the ticket item any of us asked for.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), however, allow us parents to take our money elsewhere. (I make my case for this in a previous article.)

With March being #NationalReadingMonth, I urge parents to read between the lines and look closely at what your local legislators are telling you (and not telling you) about the state of our education. Before they ask for your money, ask them for proof of their service. Because for many children, literacy is their one ticket to freedom. To leave our kids illiterate would be a true denial of civil rights.

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