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David C. Harvey

David C. Harvey

Posted March 26, 2009 | 12:41 PM (EST)

Answering President Obama's Call for Education


President Barack Obama has called on all Americans to complete at least one year of post-secondary school or career training. In an ideal world, achieving this goal would result in great improvements for education, the American workforce and our economic recovery.

When President Obama presented his call-to-action, undoubtedly students everywhere were given new hope that they could reach that goal themselves. However, at the same time, for the one in seven adults in the U.S. who lack the basic reading, writing or math skills to even apply for college or technical career training, the challenge was met with profound disappointment.

The reason they feel disappointed? Direct funding for Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), the largest source of federal support for adult literacy and basic education in the U.S., was not allocated in the stimulus bill. Instead, there was funding for many important programs that will provide for job training and the creation of jobs -- but for the most part, these programs leave out those one in seven adults who can't read, write, do basic math or work on a computer.

Right now, nearly 90 percent of the adults who need access to literacy programs cannot obtain services due to a lack of funding at the federal, state and local levels. Illiteracy also costs American businesses more than $60 billion each year in lost productivity and health and safety issues, yet over the past 10 years funding for these programs have been cut despite the growing need. Lowest-skilled workers are usually the first to lose their jobs and then, often times become dependent on public resources, adding to our growing economic woes.

Contrary to a common misperception, this is not a new situation resulting from the economic downturn, but a crisis that has been silently brewing in the American workforce for more than a decade. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released an updated study estimating that an additional 3.6 million adults are now considered to have low literacy skills, bringing the total to nearly 32 million. You read that correctly, 32 million adults. It's almost incomprehensible.

Don't get me wrong -- I applaud the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for providing tax breaks, resources for infrastructure and investments to create jobs. I am particularly grateful to Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and John Kerry (D-MA) and Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) for attempting to provide funding directly to Title II of the Workforce Investment Act. When that effort failed, they joined with Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) to make local literacy programs eligible to compete for funding in other sections of the stimulus, an intensely competitive process that will leave many organizations without access to needed funds.

The reality at-hand is that the stimulus bill aims to create jobs, but these new positions will certainly have job skill requirements that relate to basic reading, writing, math and computers in order to fill them. As the work marketplace becomes more competitive with dozens or hundreds of applicants for a single position, those lacking the basic literacy skills will be pushed that much farther behind with no chance for employment.

What should be done? In the regular 2010 budget cycle, we need to make up for what the stimulus did not do -- allocate $100 million or more for Title II of the Workforce Investment Act so we start to address the gaping hole in America's adult literacy problem. It's good for the American economy and it's good for our standing in the world. And, it meets President Obama's call for career training that gives all Americans a chance.