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Let’s start by devoting $20 million to early literacy

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You might think that all third graders who can’t read get held back a year. After all, the state program “Move On When Reading,” by its very name, is supposed to pinpoint the children who need more help, and hold them back until they can read well enough to actually start learning while reading. But the reading problems in Arizona are so big, the actual numbers are frightening.

Currently, of the 88,747 third graders in Arizona, 60 percent fail the English Language Arts portion of their AzMerit exam. That’s 53,248 students!  The number of third graders who don’t pass the reading exam in Arizona would fill every seat of Chase Field, with 5,000 kids still waiting in line outside!

We couldn’t hold that many children back. It would swamp the whole system.

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Rebecca Gau

So, only the pupils at the bottom 5 percent of the test scores, specifically on one reading section, are slated to repeat third grade. In fact, the number is usually around 1,500 students. The rest of the Chase Field crowd of kids move on, hopefully to figure it out before it’s too late.

Sadly, we already know that many of them don’t. Children who can’t pass their reading proficiency tests at the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why Arizona’s high school graduation rates are six percent lower than the national average.

In a poll conducted by Stand for Children Arizona last December, 70 percent of Arizonans surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for a sales tax increase to provide additional funding for public schools, specifically after hearing about our state’s poor third grade reading scores.

Gov. Doug Ducey has the right idea in his budget proposal, devoting $10 million for early literacy. We are thrilled that he wants to dedicate that money to schools whose students come from low income families. But $10 million is simply not enough to make the difference that our state desperately needs and our children definitely deserve.

Stand for Children Arizona is calling for the amount of money devoted to early literacy in the governor’s budget to double to $20 million. On top of the increase in funds, we are supporting efforts in the Legislature to streamline that money to make “Move On When Reading” less bureaucratic and more accountable. To put it more plainly, it would finally target the kids who need the most help with reading skills.

We already know illiteracy costs businesses and taxpayers $20 billion every year across the country. If we really want to improve education in Arizona, if we really want to improve Arizona’s economy, this is where we need to start.

Rebecca Gau is Executive Director of Stand for Children Arizona. The group’s website is stand.org/Arizona.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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