Finley: Fight racism with literacy

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

American corporations can’t get their checkbooks out fast enough to buy themselves a spot on the safe side of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But paying protection money to organizations that are just as likely to use it to further their political agendas as they are to address the chronic inequities faced by African-Americans is not progress.

Pandering is no substitute for concrete action to bust down barriers to equal opportunity. 

Chief among them is education. In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, 85% of students can’t read at grade level.

Reading skills are essential to obtaining a quality education, which is vital to getting a good job, which is the first step toward economic empowerment.

If we want to erase the lingering effects of racism, we have to commit to properly educating African-American children.

In Detroit, we’ve been trying to achieve that goal for 25 years with myriad reform movements and tens of millions of dollars. The results are negligible because the efforts have been so scattershot.

They all skipped the foundational step of teaching kids to read. Former Gov. John Engler recommended that children in urban districts spend the first three years of their schooling focused on nothing but reading skills.

That may not be necessary. Beyond Basics, a literacy tutoring nonprofit, has been working in Detroit schools for two decades providing intensive literacy tutoring.

The group boasts a 90% success rate of bringing students to grade-level reading skills, often after just six weeks, by creating personalized, one-on-one tutoring plans. 

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has invited Beyond Basics to expand its program as fast as it can raise the funds to do so.

Pamela Good, Co-founder & CEO of Beyond Basics

It’s not cheap. To provide personalized tutoring for all 43,000 Detroit students who fall into the literacy gap would take $138 million. Obviously, the school district doesn't have that kind of money (though if the $100 million literacy lawsuit money ever comes through from the state, it would have a good start).

Making the link between illiteracy and inequality might jar the necessary dollars out of the pockets of businesses, foundations and individuals who want to "do something" about racism, but would rather do it without funding radical left-wing groups.

"Literacy is connected to every social ill," says Beyond Basics director Pamela Good, adding that a fully literate population would greatly reduce the states welfare spending. "We have to stop treating the symptoms and work on the cure."

Good says she can scale up her program and close the literacy gap within five to seven school years.

Imagine the difference it would make in the performance metrics of Detroit schools if every child who sat down to take a standardized test could actually read and comprehend the questions.

That, in turn, would lead to more scholarships and greater success in college and technical programs.

And instead of sending so many kids from school to welfare or prison, the district would be sending them into careers.

This is a clear strategy for shrinking the underclass and growing opportunity.

And the return on investment for those eager to pay up to assuage their white guilt will be far greater than giving the money to groups whose mission is less clear, and perhaps less savory.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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