THE BLOG
08/30/2012 07:15 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Treating the Symptoms: An Open Letter to the Republican and Democratic Conventions

Jobs and the economy are taking center stage these next two weeks as each party attempts to position itself as the leader with the way out. But the focus is on stop-gap, short-term solutions. To truly put this country back on track, and in a position to lead in the 21st century global economy, we must commit to starting where we'll have the greatest impact: early childhood literacy.

Let's step back. Forty million Americans are functionally illiterate today and children coming from an illiterate home are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves. Literacy is directly tied to earning potential, with joblessness plaguing those with the lowest literacy levels. In fact, the higher a person scores on literacy tests, the more likely he or she is to be a top earner.

The sobering truth is only 34 percent of America's fourth graders read at grade level. Children who aren't reading proficiently by fourth grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school. One in every 10 young male dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention. There is a cycle of poverty in this country intertwined with illiteracy. Without intervention and addressing increased struggles with poverty, it's only going to get worse, especially in a global economy.

In international rankings, fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. rank 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. In every category, we're behind countries like China, Korea, Japan, Poland and Australia.

But no discussions about the long-term health of our economy are focused on children's literacy as a root issue. Why? Because we're still in a magic-pill mentality. But no matter which party's economic plan wins, nothing is going to stave off what's in store if our leaders don't start paying attention to more than the symptoms of a weak educational system. If we think it's bad now, just imagine what's ahead.

As our world becomes increasingly more dependent on technology, ensuring children have a solid -- and early -- foundation in "reading" is critical to compete in a global economy. Our future workforce must not only be literate but also acquire a strong comprehension of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects. According to the Bureau of Statistics, STEM jobs are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in other fields in the next five years alone.

At Reading Is Fundamental, America's largest children's literacy non-profit, our core concern is to ensure children have access to the most vital tool toward their academic success -- books. The truth is, for every 300 kids living in poverty in the U.S. today, there is only one book. RIF's mission is to get these kids the books and tools they need to lift them out of their cycles of poverty.

But we're going beyond simply distributing books. We're launching a multi-year campaign focused on the intersection of early childhood literacy, the arts and STEM learning. By ensuring we're not only getting books to kids, but also books that foster a true passion for STEM subjects, we're taking an approach that offers a comprehensive, long-term solution.

We're doing this despite a federal grant loss that cost RIF $24.8 million -- or 80 percent of our budget. Yes, you read that right. We're losing critical funds that will get children in poverty the tools they need to break a cycle of poverty. This is happening as the number of children in poverty continues to grow to levels unseen in decades.

Sadly, we're not alone. Our friends in libraries are facing their own significant federal budget cuts, despite the numerous services they are providing to the ranks of un- and under-employed Americans. In many cases, these lower budgets result in layoffs and cutbacks in children's programming.

Children are again struck by budget cuts in our public school system, where literacy services seem to be some of the first to go. Consider the case of the District of Columbia Public Schools, where librarians at more than 50 schools were laid off in a cost-cutting move. More than 16,000 students are returning to schools this fall without a single librarian.

We're not naïve to the realities that exist today. Funding is tough. But early childhood education shouldn't be on the cutting block. That it is and that leaders of neither party are focused on this is indefensible. The damage this does to our children today -- and our workforce tomorrow -- is a prescription for failure. America's path to economic wellness starts early and it starts with a commitment to ensuring every child has the educational foundation needed to succeed, starting with reading.

Rasco has been at Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's largest children's literacy organization, since 2001. In the organization's 45-year history, RIF has distributed more than 400 million free, new books to more than 35 million children.