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September 16, 2015

What the GOP candidates should debate: education

San Francisco Chronicle / September 15, 2015

When the 2016 GOP presidential candidates gather in Simi Valley (Ventura County) Wednesday, they undoubtedly will continue their dialogue around hot-button topics such as immigration and national security. I’d like to challenge the candidates to use their time in California to address an issue of incredible urgency and importance that is receiving far too little attention: education.

Presidential candidates hold the unique ability to bring significant attention to an issue, and they can spur debate that leads to change on a broad scale. The candidates should know that students in our state are facing an education crisis rooted in the most fundamental piece of the learning puzzle. Our kids are struggling to read.

Last Wednesday, we learned the results of the new California Smarter Balanced Test that evaluated students under the Common Core standards. Sadly, 60 percent of California fourth-graders did not meet standards for reading. Similarly, 62 percent of all third-graders failed to meet reading standards. That number jumped to 72 percent for African American fourth-graders and 68 percent for Hispanic fourth-graders.

These figures are neither acceptable nor are they something our communities can afford to sustain.

Research shows a fourth-grader who is not reading proficiently is four times less likely to graduate high school on time. This lack of proficient reading ability hinders a child’s chances to succeed in college and the workforce, and greatly increases his or her chances of living in poverty.

The challenge is not limited to California. Nationally, only 1 in 5 low-income students is reading proficiently by the fourth grade. These figures have not changed significantly in the past 15 years. Once students start to fall behind in reading, studies show they tend to fall faster and further behind their peers with every year in every subject.

When the candidates outline their plans to tackle unemployment, higher education and job creation, they are speaking to issues that are firmly rooted in education and can be affected by making smart investments in our kids.

There are proven interventions and evidence-based programs that show significant potential to improve literacy learning and narrow the gap between students who struggle with reading and their peers. Once students catch up to their grade level, they are better equipped to master other subjects, including math, science and technology.

Unfortunately, there is no money slated for literacy in the draft of the 2016 federal budget.

Successful reading legislation must include adequate assessments to be able to identify struggling readers, individualized reading plans that will set these students up on a path to success, and mechanisms that ensure strong family engagement. An effective reform effort must also include an early literacy fund to aid programs, expanded resources for our disabled and students who are still learning English, teacher professional development and crucial after-school programming.

The American people deserve to hear how their presidential candidates intend to address the fact that our kids are going through school without adequate reading skills. We need an honest and immediate conversation to ensure the brightest possible future for our country, and to allow these millions of struggling readers the chance that they deserve.

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