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Education: A Victory of Kids [Child Welfare League of America]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Children’s Voice, page 15-17
Child Welfare League of America
Winter 1997

Politicians love to talk about what they are doing for education. But a handful of federal decision-makers have put their support where their rhetoric is to develop and implement programs dedicated to improving the lives of students and schools. Following are five legislators who are leading the pack.

James M. Jeffords (R-VT): Everybody Wins Foundation

As chair of the Senate education subcommittee-and now as the chair of the full Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee-U.S. Senator James M. Jeffords (R-VT) has had a hand in most education policy issues since 1994. He has coauthored such initiatives as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the School to Work Act, and Goals 2000. But one of the programs he is most proud of is the Everybody Wins Foundation.

Founded in 1989, Everybody Wins is a private nonprofit organization that promotes children’s literacy and increasing student’s prospects for success in school. Elementary students through grade six are matched with adult reading partners. Often professionals in the community, adult partners join students weekly for “Power Lunches,” where they read, share stories, and have at lunch with the kids.

“Not only do kids hear great stories, they connect with professionals who act as informal mentors and positive role models,” says Rayne Pollack, a legislative assistant on the education subcommittee, who points to statistics show that 51 % of high-school graduates are functionally illiterate.

He says this program targets kids in 1st through 3rd grade—a developmental period when they are much more likely to never learn to read. “That lessens the odds that they’ll drop out later,” Pollack believes.

The Power Lunches program started in New York City in 1989 and has taken hold nationwide in several states including California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Vermont.

In 1995, Everybody Wins coordinator Shirley Farrow started the program at Robert Brent Elementary School, located on Capitol Hill. Nearly 200 Senate staff members signed up to read to kids. Several Senators turned out to read including Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and Paul Wellstone (D-MN). And every Tuesday, Jim Jeffords takes his turn.

“The Senate’s sponsorship of Everybody Wins at the Brent School is successful, but it’s only the first step,” Jeffords says. “Our goal is to expand the program throughout the D.C. public school system so that every child will be read to, one-on-one, for school and for pleasure.”

Edward J. Markey (D-MA): V-Chip Legislation

The television condom, also known as the v-chip, is a high-tech development that promises to return control of the television to parents. The v-chip legislation was part of the Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996.
Designed to help parents control the amount of violence their children see on TV, the v-chip is a small computer chip that will be incorporated into all televisions made after 1998. Television programs will also receive ratings similar to movie ratings.

As ranking member of the House telecommunications subcommittee, Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA) helped pass the v-chip legislation. He has been trying to clean up the airwaves since 1975 when, as a state representative, he heard a news report about a Boston man who was doused with gasoline and burned to death by neighborhood kids who had seen the crime depicted on TV. That day, Markey went on television himself to urge networks to block kids from seeing such grisly events.

No one listened. Markey kept fighting. He fought other legislators. He fought protectors of the First Amendment. But mostly, he fought a few powerful broadcasters. In 1996, he won.

Markey is still trying to get broadcasters to adhere to the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which he wrote. He successfully launched the Three for Kids campaign in October 1995 to get broadcasters to follow through with their promise to air at least three hours per week of educational television for kids. In return, the broadcasters will continue to use the public airways for free.

Broadcasters claimed they were airing more than three hours of educational programming already. After all, they were showing such programs as “The Flintstones” (which they claimed was history show) and “The Jetsons” (a show that had merits for it depicts life in the future). The broadcasters also argued that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to concern itself with the content of television programming.

“Malarkey,” said Markey. And at the White House Summit on Children’s Television last July, the National Association of Broadcasters announced they would comply with the three-hour law.

“It’s heartening … that broadcasters will finally meet their obligation to air educational programming,” Markey says. “For three hours, kids will be free of junk-food-for-the-mind-TV.”

George Miller (D-CA): Head of the Class

It was a Monday afternoon, and Representative George Miller (D-CA) had a plane to catch. But he had a stop to make before heading to San Francisco International Airport. Miller had a high school class to teach.

Since 1996, he has taught at Olympic High School in Concord, California— a continuation school for 16- to 18-year-olds at risk of dropping out. Topics of discussion covered some controversial issues—everything from immigration to abortion. He even bought tickets so a few students could see the movie “Dead Man Walking,” to help fuel a discussion on capital punishment.

Principal Marcie Miller (no relation to the Congressman) believes the weekly talks motivated a handful of kids who were ready to drop out-to graduate last May. “George Miller … recognizes that the youth of the community, whether they be A+ students or at-risk, need to feel they are part of the community. He realizes they should have a voice in their government, and is trying to help them to learn the power of that voice.”

The learning went both ways, George Miller says. “It was a process of reaffirmation of the highest degree. The kids’ enthusiasm is what really got me.”

Miller works hard to help students understand the decision-making process. “I explain that policy is made through the art of persuasion, so every semester students have to convince classmates of their positions. That makes for some pretty heated discussions.”

But then, Miller likes to kick up dust, and says he teaches the class because he is honestly interested in how these kids turn out. “Congress makes a lot of decisions that affect these kids. But their opinions and thoughts are never considered. Now that I have worked with them, I find myself quoting them more often than I thought I would. I use their comments in my committee work and in
my speeches on floor. I think it’s helping me make a difference.”

The congressman also wants others to know what his students think. At his suggestion, the students wrote papers and Miller them passed on to President Clinton, suggesting points the president should include in his inaugural address about the meaning of a bridge to the 21st century.

Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL): Education Infrastructure Act of 1994

It was 4:00 pm on a November day in 1994, just 40 minutes after the children have left for the day, when the roof collapsed at an Alabama elementary school.

Not long after, at a school in downtown Chicago, teachers have to cover vents with cheesecloth and mesh to prevent flecks of lead paint in the heating and ventilation system from blowing into classrooms.

And soon after, sewage was founded to be leaking into first grade classrooms at a New York City elementary school.

Outraged and nauseated, U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL) vowed to do something about the nation’s dilapidated schools. She and four other Senators asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to study the condition of America’s schools.

After surveying about10,000 schools in 5,000 districts in all 50 states, it found that at least 62% were in need of an upgrade or repair, and at least 52% had leaky roofs or violated safety codes. GAO also found that in 1994, states spent only $3.5 billion on school repairs—far less than the $112 billion needed to bring schools to code.

“America can’t compete if our students can’t learn, and students can’t learn if their schools are falling down,” says Moseley-Braun, who introduced the Education Infrastructure Act of 1994 to provide funding for school repairs. Enacted in October of that year, the bill authorized $200 million for FY 1995.

But funding was slow in coming. Congress appropriated only half the authorized amount for FY 1995. By April 1995, $65 million had been rescinded. In July 1995, the rest of the money was cut.

After GAO released three reports documenting the sorry shape of the nation’s schools, President Clinton made the issue his own. At a White House ceremony last July, the President and Moseley-Braun introduced a $5 billion, four-year construction program, which authorizes federal grants to school districts to repair dilapidated facilities and construct new buildings.

The program will help finance up to $20 billion in new construction. The White House says the plan is a one-time shot designed to jump-start school construction. But it will require legislative action this year by the 105th Congress.

“Crumbling schools is not just an inner-city problem,” Moseley-Braun says. “It is not just a problem for poor children or minority children. Crumbling schools are everywhere. It is an American problem-and it relates directly to our future ability to maintain the quality of life Americans have come to expect.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley: Read Write Now!

In 1995, a handful of corporations and organizations—including Pizza Hut, AMC Theaters, the Girl Scouts of America, and Reading is Fundamental—joined Secretary of Education Richard Riley in launching a national summer program called Read Write Now!

It encourages kindergartners to 6th graders to read with a teenager, senior citizen, relative, or friend for 30 minutes a day. They are also encouraged to write, and learn at least one new vocabulary word. The reward: a free pizza from program co-sponsor Pizza Hut.

It’s amazing what the promise of a little pepperoni will do. During the summer of 1995, 425,000 children and their 125,000 reading partners participated in the program. The goal for 1996 was to have one million children reading, but the nation’s children exceeded that.

“When it comes to reading and writing skills, either you use them or lose them,” says Riley, who established the program in collaboration with the Partnership for Family Involvement in Education. That organization now oversees the nationwide project and sends out free reading kits that include how-to materials, activity books, and bookmarks.

For a free reading package call 1-800-USA-LEARN.

Hope Katz Gibbs, a freelance writer in Alexandria, Virginia, frequently writes about children and the issues that impact their lives.


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