Saturday, April 4, 2009

Uncle Harry's drinking problem

"Oklahoma City has a literacy problem," writes Mary Surbeck, literacy program coordinator for the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, today in The Oklahoman. "Study after study confirms that adults in Oklahoma are not up to the reading tasks that their jobs and families require. They struggle to read to their children, follow safety regulations and instructions, complete health forms, etc."

Surbeck encourages volunteers to sign up to tutor illiterates, which is a good idea. But as I wrote in The Oklahoman in 2003, it doesn't get to the root of the problem:

By now the story formula is well known. A reporter or columnist will trot out Oklahoma's mind-boggling illiteracy statistics, profile a recovering illiterate, then end with some warm fuzzies about reading to your kids or becoming a volunteer tutor. In the case of "Henry backs reading program," an October 19 story in The Oklahoman, the warm fuzzy was the launch of a new marketing campaign called "Read Y'all." (In an Associated Press story which ran in the Amarillo Globe News, our governor pointed out, reassuringly, that "everybody in Oklahoma uses the word 'y'all.' It's a well-known fact that when someone says 'y'all,' they mean everyone.")

Moving right along. Literacy articles which profile adult learners or marketing campaigns have their place, but why must they always ignore the elephant in the living room? Surely I'm not the only one who wonders, "How did we end up with 421,000 illiterates in this state? I thought schools were supposed to teach people to read."

"The full truth can't be told," Joseph Sobran once remarked, "if some subjects have to be danced around like Uncle Harry's drinking problem." Let's be honest: our illiterates have been to school, for crying out loud. Oklahoma doesn't have a mere 100 literacy programs, as one source indicated. We have more than 1,800 of them. They're called schools, and taxpayers pour billions of hard-earned dollars into them.

Let us review: (a) Oklahoma has a compulsory attendance law which mandates school attendance from ages 5 to 18; (b) 95 percent of Oklahoma students attend a public school, the kind the First Lady taught in and the Governor has been funding his entire public life; and yet (c) 1,127,482 Oklahomans—nearly half the adult population—are barely literate at best, with a literacy repertoire ranging from practically nonexistent to "quite limited"!

Isn't it about time someone confronted poor Uncle Harry? I mean, this is getting a little out of hand. I'm not asking that every child become a National Merit scholar, but at $6,772 annually per child even if you taught them nothing else you could at least teach them to read. Y'all.

Gov. Henry is appalled at the illiteracy, but does he realize that his monopoly school system is partly to blame? Does he wince at the massive educational failure? The emperor won't disclose.

I don't mean to jump all over Gov. Henry for something that's scarcely his fault. But if he's going to appear with his wife on the promotional materials (distributed at taxpayer expense) and reap publicity and goodwill which will enhance his re-election effort, then he's pretty much fair game on this issue.

Here's a political speech I'd love to hear from Gov. Henry or any other politician: "Look, we're spending billions of dollars on education, but for whatever reason thousands of our children are not learning to read. Boeing or GM would never tolerate this kind of failure rate, and as stewards of the taxpayers' money neither should we.

"We must have an educated citizenry. But just because government provides education doesn't mean government has to produce all of it. Just as Medicaid dollars flow to private hospitals, and B-52 bombers are built by private contractors, and tuition grants can be used at private colleges, let's empower children to attend whatever school, public or private, will best teach them to read.

"It is wrong to keep children trapped in schools that won't teach and won't change. Let's say to the children, 'You have a right to escape. You're freed, y'all.'"

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