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Senators Urge a Federal 'Assault' On the Problem of Adult Illiteracy

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Washington--The federal government should lead an "assault" on the problem of adult illiteracy, members of a Senate subcommittee declared at a hearing last week.

"What we really need is leadership," said Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, who chaired the hearing. "We need someone willing to lead the charge."

Senator Simon argued that a number of recent developments--including First Lady Barbara Bush's efforts on the issue--suggest that "the nation is ready to tackle it head on." He indicated he would introduce legislation aimed at strengthening and coordinating federal, state, and local literacy efforts, developing model programs, and providing incentives for public-private partnerships.

The proposed "illiteracy elimination act" also would establish a Cabinet-level council on literacy coordination and a new National Center for Literacy, which would serve as the council's research and outreach arm, he explained.

Senator Simon contrasted his proposal with current federal efforts, which he described as only having "dealt on the edges" of the problem. Although the Education Department and other agencies spend about $190 million annually on adult-literacy programs, he noted, such programs reach a small fraction of the estimated 27 million Americans over age 18 who cannot read or write.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, pointed out that the Bush Administration recommended no increase this year in spending for adult-literacy programs.

Although the Administration sought an 18 percent increase--to $161 million--for adult-education grants to states, he said, the increase was nearly offset by requests to eliminate grants for workplace literacy, English-language instruction, and literacy initiatives by libraries.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos responded, however, that the request was aimed at giving more flexibility to states. "This is not just a federal problem," he insisted. "It needs to be dealt with at every level."

D. Kay Wright, deputy assistant secretary of education for vocational and adult education, noted that the Education Department represents only a part of the federal government's literacy efforts.

"There are 79 programs in 14 different agencies all dealing with adult literacy," she said. "One of the things we must do is coordinate resources."

Secretary Cavazos added that the Administration also has addressed the problem by requesting substantial increases in funding for elementary and secondary programs.

"I believe that the key to eliminating adult illiteracy in the next generation," Mr. Cavazos said, "lies in improving the education of all our children."--rr

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