Emphasizing reading

Published: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 10:01 p.m.
Gov. Jeb Bush has a basic concept about education: "If you can't read, you can't learn. I don't want to oversimplify things but it really, truly is that simple."
Teachers, who might argue that nothing in education is ever simple, will no doubt agree that reading is fundamental. Without reading comprehension, there isn't much hope for any student.
"A student's ability to read unlocks the door to learning and empowers students to achieve their dreams," said Bush in a prepared statement last week in announcing his request for a $43.3 million increase for reading initiatives.
Aimed at helping young students who are struggling with reading, Bush proposes adding an additional 300 reading coaches (primarily in elementary and middle schools), bringing the statewide total to about 1,000. The additional money would boost the program's budget to $186 million - a 30 percent increase.
Bush launched "Just Read, Florida!" in 2001. Its goal is to have every child in the state able to read at or above grade level by 2012. A majority of students read at grade level or above last year for the first time since statistics have been kept, so the goal appears to be attainable.
The reading program has three levels: training teachers using scientifically based reading research; parent involvement through workshops for parents of struggling readers; and encouraging community organizations and corporations to have members and employees serve as reading mentors.
In May 2003, Bush started "Just Read, Families!" which encourages parents to take an active role in their children's reading activities during summer months. In addition to the 30 percent increase, Bush wants money for reading made a permanent part of the funding formula used to determine the state's education-spending allocation.
While reading is an important building block, the governor and legislators need to be reminded that there's more involved in education. Florida ranks 47th nationally in per-student spending based on 2002 data, according to a report released this month by Education Week, a national education newspaper. Only Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah spend less.
"I don't think it's any big secret that education funding has been inadequate," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, to the Orlando Sentinel recently. The states leaders need to realize that "more money being invested in education in the long run is more money being invested in the economy."
Florida's adjusted spending per student was about $6,500 annually according to the report. That's more than 15 percent below the national average.
Another report on education quality in the United States was also issued this month and has a telling example for Florida. The Rand Corp.'s study noted that California's once-lauded school system now trails the nation in every objective measure.
It noted that a California measure to reduce class sizes from kindergarten through third grade also had an unwanted result: bringing in hundreds of inexperienced teachers to schools. Florida's class-size amendment was passed by voters in 2000. Bush is considering pressing for another amendment that would modify the reductions in class size for elementary, middle and high schools.
Bush's budget, which was unveiled Tuesday, proposes a $1.1 billion increase for the K-12 school system. It would leave per-student spending at about current inflation-adjusted levels reported in the Education Week study.
"Education remains our state's No. 1 priority," Bush said.
While the emphasis on reading is encouraging, approaching what the rest of the nation invests in per-student education costs apparently has a lower status.

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