Will we elect a literacy president?

February 12, 2008


There is an interesting website out there called literacypresident.org. The website creators submitted literacy-related questions to the original 15 Democratic and Republican candidates. Only two responded to the questions – Barack Obama and John Edwards. Only one of those two is still in the race for president…

Obama’s responses:

1. Will you make adult education one of your education priorities?

Yes. Throughout America’s history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of people of all ages. Even for those well-past their twenties, people recognize that an education is the ticket to a better life. Today, more than ever, we must prepare our students, young and old, not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also to take their place as committed and engaged citizens.

Every year, 4,000 New Hampshirites and 1.23 million Americans leave high school without graduating. The recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reports that 30 million adults have crippling reading, math, and/or English language deficiencies and 93 million adults could benefit from adult education services. These trends are not only devastating to the individuals involved, but they’re a strain on our entire economy.

We have services in place that have been partially successful in addressing the problem and are cost-effective as well, and I would support these programs as president. Federal funding for adult education services through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act is just over $560 million annually. Along with state funding, these sources provide adult education services to approximately 2.7 million adults each year. New Hampshire provides these adult education services to approximately 8,000 adults each year. At a cost of approximately $575 per student each year, this program is highly cost-effective, particularly in light of the number of students becoming employed and the reductions in those who have to rely on ongoing government supports like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Office of Management and Budget rated the adult education program as one of only four “effective” Department of Education Programs out of 89 that were considered. We need to build on its success, and as president, I would do this.

We have to provide struggling adults the opportunity to succeed, and adult education is a crucial part of this. I will make adult education a priority.

2. The current adult education system serves approximately 3 million of the 93 million individuals a year in need of adult literacy services, with waiting lists throughout the United States. If elected, what steps will your administration take to increase access for new immigrants, the unemployed, underemployed, high school dropouts and others in need of assistance?

As a nation, we have an obligation to make an education available to anyone who wants one, regardless of station in life. As president, I will make long-term investments in education, language training, and workforce development so that Americans can leverage our strengths – our ingenuity and entrepreneurialism – to create new high-wage jobs and prosper in a global economy.

As president, I will support funding for apprenticeship programs and investments in community college programs that target adults looking to gain new skills. I will also increase federal investments into transitional jobs, which are a promising way to help chronically unemployed people break into the workplace, and support bridge programs that partner the federal government with employers and community-based organizations to identify job opportunities, develop customized training programs, and place lowincome employees in better jobs.

I also believe that we have an obligation to new immigrants who we welcome into our community. We need to place greater importance on an adult education regime for immigrants which includes learning English so that they can succeed in the global economy. Federal spending on bilingual education is stagnating while the number of students who lack English proficiency is growing rapidly. Federal spending on bilingual education should at least keep pace with the expanding need.

I was disappointed that the Senate failed to move forward to consider the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented immigrants (up to age 30) the opportunity to pursue higher education, and eventually become legalized citizens. We need comprehensive immigration reform in this country – reform that promotes our national and economic security and creates a pathway to earned citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. But we should not punish undocumented children who were brought to this country illegally through no choice of their own by keeping them in the shadows. The DREAM Act would have given these young people the opportunity to earn a degree or serve in our military, and eventually become legalized citizens. Failing to pass the DREAM Act only compounds the immigration crisis by continuing to drive thousands of young people every year into hiding. I will continue to work with Senators Durbin, Hagel, Lugar and Kennedy on this issue, and will fight to bring this legislation back for another vote as soon as possible. And as president, I am committed to signing this legislation into law – just as I did in Illinois when I helped pass our state’s version of the DREAM Act.

Ultimately, we have to make sure that more people do not find themselves in the position of being unemployed by redoubling our efforts to ensure that every child graduates with a world-class education. That starts by tackling our dropout crisis. I recently introduced a bill in the Senate that will invest in proven strategies to support middle school students because research shows that the academic problems that lead a high school student to drop out often begin in middle school. My bill also awards grants to help states and districts improve graduation rates. Finally, I support efforts to address the dropout crisis by strengthening the role of non-profits and community-based organizations and by enhancing collaboration among parents, state and district leaders, elected officials, entrepreneurs, and community leaders.

3. Will you support intergenerational literacy programs (combining adult education and early childhood education) and other efforts directed at improving the literacy or academic skills of parents and other caregivers so they can fully support the education of their children?

Children’s literacy levels are strongly linked to the educational level of their parents, particularly their mother. We must break the cycle of children for whom poverty is their inheritance and illiteracy their destiny. If this means intergenerational literacy programs where possible, I’m in favor of exploring those options.

To begin, I’m fully in favor of expanding early childhood education, so that our children no longer start school already behind. Research shows that many low-income children do not enter kindergarten ready to learn. In fact, half of low-income children start school up to two years behind their peers in preschool skills, and these early achievement gaps continue throughout elementary school. I will increase funding for the Head Start program to provide preschool children with critically important learning skills, and I support the necessary role of parental involvement in the success of Head Start.

One highly-acclaimed model for addressing intergenerational poverty is the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which provides a full network of services to entire needy neighborhoods from birth to college. By providing comprehensive supports to an entire community of low-income families, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has made amazing progress over the last decade. Despite serving one of the most low-income, high-crime and low-academic achievement neighborhoods in New York City, over 115 former HCZ participants are currently enrolled in college; HCZ students have placed within the top three at national and city chess championships; 274 apartment dwellers have become first-time homeowners; HCZ students participating in support programs are much more likely to stay in school and pass the New York State Regents Exam than New York City average. And, as relates to literacy, 93 percent of participating parents in the “Baby College” program have increased the amount of time they read to their young children.

I will launch an initiative to create 20 Promise Neighborhoods in areas that have high levels of poverty and crime, and low levels of student academic achievement, in cities across the nation. The Promise Neighborhoods will seek to engage all resident children and their parents into an achievement program based on tangible goals, including matriculation to college for each and every participating student, strong physical and mental health outcomes for children as well as retention of meaningful employment and parenting schools for parents.

4. Will you support workplace education services in partnership with employers that will enable currently employed undereducated adults to improve their reading, writing, math and English in order to compete for increasingly complex jobs?

We have to do this. It’s the reality of the new global marketplace we find ourselves in. The low skill American jobs of the 20th century have moved overseas. As a result, many adults in low paying jobs or on welfare lack the academic and other job skills necessary to obtain and maintain employment. Businesses lose more than $60 billion in productivity each year due to employees’ basic skill deficiencies. We must respond by ratcheting up the skill level of our workforce. To help all workers adapt to a rapidly changing economy, I would update the existing system of trade adjustment assistance by extending it to service industries, creating flexible education accounts that workers could use to retrain, and providing retraining assistance for workers in sectors of the economy vulnerable to dislocation before they lose their jobs. All these programs must contain basic writing and math skills for those workers undereducated in those areas.

5. In order to overcome the stigma of adults returning to school, will you use your bully pulpit to set the expectation that all adult parents, workers, and community members will enhance their potential by improving their reading, math and English skills?

Yes. We’ve listened for too long to a president who thinks it’s a mark of honor that he was a C student. The office of the president should never be used to laugh off the value of an education or to make school seem like something undesirable or unnecessary. When I’m president, I’ll set a different national mood on education by using the bully pulpit of the presidency to push Americans of all ages to pursue not just basic education, but educational excellence. We need a country that doesn’t stigmatize education; we need a country that encourages it whether we’re black or brown, native or foreign born, child or adult.


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