In a rite of passage hundreds of years old, Texas families from Harlingen to Amarillo are hugging their children as they head back to school. This past summer, many parents nostalgically helped their kids complete their required summer reading. Many of us fondly remember discovering Huckleberry Finn and The Hardy Boys while sprawled on the grass on a hot August day.
Research shows that children who read at home with their families often perform better in school. For that reason, I take time out of my busy schedule to read with my own children. I have also enjoyed working with “Reach Out and Read,” a non-profit organization that promotes children’s literacy in doctors’ rooms. While youngsters wait for doctors’ appointments with their parents, “Reach Out and Read” gives them new books, along with advice to their parents about the importance of reading aloud. Each year, the organization distributes over 250,000 books and helps more than 200,000 Texas children enter school prepared for success.
In today’s competitive economy, the skills of the next generation will be the foundation for our state’s economic growth. We must work together to encourage students to stay in school and make learning a life-long endeavor.
Unfortunately, each year, a third of Texas high school students quit before graduation. Studies show that Texas has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation. Our dropout rate particularly affects lower-income families, including the 2.2 million Texas children whose parents lacked steady employment in 2007. This figure represents a three percent increase since 2000 and accounts for one third of our state’s youth.
Quitting school compounds their challenges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 those who left school earned $7,200 less than high school graduates and $28,000 less than college graduates. The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that in July 2009 the unemployment rate was an astronomical 15.4 percent for Texas high school dropouts, compared to 4.7 percent for people with bachelor’s degrees or higher. The Alliance estimates that students who dropped out of Texas’s Class of 2009 will forfeit more than $34.6 billion they could have earned over their lifetimes if they had stayed in school.
For the U.S. to remain the leader of the global economy, we must bolster our national education system. And for Texas to thrive and nurture the best and the brightest, that process must start at the local level.
Just as families can encourage reading among children, communities can work to revitalize their own neighborhoods if provided more local control and flexibility. In the Senate I have supported efforts to help communities offer services like literacy and job training.
These programs help adults as well as youths. The National Adult Literacy Survey estimates that 90 million American adults lack basic literacy skills. Adult education programs provide the skills Americans need to obtain good jobs.
Our state shines as the home of the Texas Book Festival, founded in 1995 by our most beloved librarian, former First Lady Laura Bush. Held annually each autumn in Austin, it has evolved into one of the nation’s foremost literary gatherings. It also spawned the National Book Festival, which will celebrate its ninth annual installment on September 26. Founded in partnership with our nation’s Library of Congress, the National Book Festival promotes literacy for fans of all genres. As an avid reader who has loved history books and biographies since I was a young girl, I was delighted to participate as an author in the National Book Festival in 2006 and 2008, and in the Texas Book Festivals as well.
School children often ask me for my own favorite book and poem. It’s hard to pinpoint just one of each, but I do admire T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: a History of Texas and the Texans, as well as a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “A Nation’s Strength:”
“What makes a nation’s pillars high, And its foundations strong? What makes it mighty to defy The foes that round it throng?... Brave men who work while others sleep, Who dare while others fly...They build a nation’s pillars deep And lift them to the sky.”
What stirring words! Nowadays, one of my favorite reading materials is mail from my constituents throughout our state. I receive more than 20,000 letters and emails from Texans each week – over one million per year! Your feedback helps me better represent Texas, and I am grateful for your suggestions. Please keep it coming - - and keep reading!
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.