Increasing literacy rates should be a high priority for California

September 12, 2014 — by Maya Ravichandran

This year, TIME Magazine ranked Bakersfield as the most illiterate city in the nation. 

 Quaint, clean houses sit in neat rows and are surrounded by beautifully landscaped yards. The wind rustles leaves gently while flowers soak in the mid-afternoon sun hungrily. The peace of Saratoga reflects its inhabitants, who are hardworking and relatively calm. Most residents focus on success for themselves and their families.

By contrast, look at Bakersfield, a town 250 miles south of Saratoga. This year, TIME Magazine ranked Bakersfield as the most illiterate city in the nation. It is nestled between rolling farmlands and small towns and is known for its hot weather.

The city is divided into sections, and there are parts of Bakersfield that mimic Saratoga life; yet in some areas, gangs rule the streets, and there is an unspoken rule to never be alone outside at night.

Two of the top five illiterate cities are in California, the other being Stockton.

The study, done by Central Connecticut State University, ranked the cities based on six categories: bookstores, residents’ educational attainment, newspaper circulation, use of online resources, the library system and periodical publishing resources.

According to TIME, “There were just two magazines with at least 2,500 subscriptions in the city in 2013 and no journal publications at all. There was just one independent bookstore in the city last year and just 30 retail book outlets for the city’s more than 350,000 residents. The city’s library system was also poor rated, with low circulation rates and understaffing. Low demand for reading materials could reflect low educational attainment rates — just 77 percent of adults had a high school diploma in 2012, among the worst nationally.”

The study highlights the lack of enthusiasm and emphasis placed on education. Lawmakers need to start paying closer attention to cities like Bakersfield and Stockton by improving schools and funding public library systems.

The affluence of the city, combined with a deep commitment to education on the part of residents, lead to a strong public school system and library. The number of people willing to donate to fund schools is overwhelming. In one recent example, the school was able to raise $1.325 million for the Sports Plaza that was now welcomes people to the football field.

Additionally, the measure E bond passed in June will ultimately provide $99 million to the high school district.

But schools in cities like Bakersfield do not enjoy such generous funds. The state should step up and provide more funding for the cities that are struggling the most.

Although California has allotted $61.6 billion for education, the highest its been in seven years, the state does not allocate money based on test results or academic ranking of schools.

Instead, the state allocates a standard grant of $7,829 per unit of average daily attendance for most schools. In short, every time a student misses class, the school receives a little less state funding.

This is problematic because schools with lower attendance rates are often the ones that need more funding and help. The state also sets aside more money for schools with a higher percentage of English learners, low-income families and youths in foster care.

What’s lacking in this budget calculation is the performance of schools on a national or state level. The state should set aside more money for underperforming districts. Though this may seem unfair to schools that do well, the increased funding could boost California’s overall rankings in education and literacy.

Improving education is only the first step in increasing the literacy rate. Reading outside of school and having access to books would also make a significant difference in increasing literacy among students. Funding for the addition of a public library system in Bakersfield and other cities that do not have one would boost reading and writing skills tremendously.

Cities like Saratoga are not in danger of falling behind, but so many other cities near us are not as lucky. It is up to the state to make sure that the next time the illiteracy rankings are released there are no California cities mentioned.

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