Reading Is Fundamental!

I have been blogging about public education quite a bit lately for several reasons. The first reason is personal; my children will soon be entering the elementary-school pipeline and I want to know what lies ahead for them. The second reason involves my concerns over President Obama's proposed changes to No Child Left Behind and his Race to the Top initiative. The third reason is a profound sense of frustration that, despite the best of intentions, our failures of the past at reforming public education will just continue.

This dissatisfaction was inflamed by a recent decision by the Obama administration that from a fiscal standpoint is almost inconsequential, yet speaks volumes about our new president's understanding of public education and has immense practical impact on a large segment of children who need our attention most. I'm talking about the 2011 federal budget change that eliminates direct funding for Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the federal program that has provided books and reading opportunities to underprivileged children for more than four decades.

I don't know about you, but I remember RIF from when I was a kid: the public service announcements on television, the RIF bookmobiles that delivered books directly to children, and the RIF events at my local library. And, of course, its tag line: Reading Is FUNdamental!

What exactly does RIF do? It puts books into the hands of underprivileged children who would not otherwise have access to books. In 2009 alone, RIF gave out 15 million books at 17,000 sites nationwide. Since its birth in 1966, RIF has distributed more than 365 million free books to over 29 million children. All this on an annual budget of around $25 million a year (for those of you who are counting, that amounts to .0005 of the total 2011 discretionary budget for the Department of Education). And RIF's success is admirably borne on the backs of more than 400,000 volunteers in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) who work in well-established state infrastructures and programs.

Why is RIF so important? As the program's name suggests, reading is fundamental to future academic success, upward mobility, and economic security. Yet, if you've seen any of the research on reading proficiency in the U.S., you would be appalled. Thirty-six percent of American 4th graders read below the "basic" level on reading tests and that percentage increases to 54 percent for economically disadvantaged children. And reading proficiency among high-school students in the U.S. has been on the decline for years. Moreover, fewer than half of families read to their young children every day and, by 8th grade, only 19 percent of children read on their own daily. Oh, by the way, an estimated 40 million adults can't read a story to a child. For many young children, RIF gives them the opportunity to learn to read and prepare for future success in school. And, for our country, RIF helps prepare these children to be vital and contributing members of our society.

I believe that public education reform needs to occur well before children even get to school. Without early intervention, other attempts at reform are bound to fail because the attitudes and skills that determine academic success (or failure) when they enter kindergarten are established at home. And RIF has played an essential role in helping to positively shape those attitudes and develop those skills for more than 43 years.

It seems like a no-brainer to support RIF (except perhaps for libertarians and other fiscal conservatives). Funding for RIF has always received bipartisan support, most recently in 2001 with the authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, better known as No Child Left Behind). It employs a huge army of volunteers around the country. And RIF is supported with both public and private funding.

So what exactly is happening with RIF that threatens its existence and its continued contributions to America's children? Under President Obama's 2011 federal budget, RIF would be lumped in with other reading literacy programs into a funding pool. States would then compete for grants from this pool and could choose or not choose to use RIF. Given that RIF is the largest children and families' literacy organization in America, has a 43-year track record, and has in place state infrastructures staffed by over 400,000 volunteers, it strikes me that putting its funding at risk is just plain counterproductive to America's interests in encouraging literacy in our children.

RIF is win-win, but the biggest winners are those little kids who wouldn't otherwise have access to books or the opportunity to read. I don't mean to get sentimental here, but, come on, if we can't do something so small, yet so impactful, for children who don't have a whole lot else going for them, well, that doesn't speak well of our country's priorities.

The goal is to keep RIF and its funding written into the ESEA reauthorization. To that end, RIF has initiated an email letter-writing campaign to educate and rally those in Congress behind RIF. Want to support RIF? Go to this link,, by April 9th and send a clear message to your Congressional representatives: Keep RIF alive!