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Ventura County Perspective

Libraries Shortchanged in Education Reform Effort

The link with good reading skills should be obvious, yet state and county put their money elsewhere.

April 11, 1999|NITA WHALEY and GEORGE BERG | Nita Whaley and George Berg are president and vice president, respectively, of the Ojai Valley Library Friends and Foundation

The startling announcement last month that the reading skills of California's fourth-graders remain deplorably low may well be speeding Gov. Gray Davis' public education reform plan through the state Legislature.

And for good reason. Results of the federal assessment released in March show that the reading skills of California's fourth-graders rank second to last among 39 states taking part in the national test. Scores reveal that 80% of California's fourth-graders are not "proficient readers" and that 52% read below the "basic" level.

Legislators and educators alike offer explanations for California's poor showing. Some claim, for instance, that it's too soon for scores to reflect the hoped-for benefits from such reforms as reduced class size or renewed emphasis on phonics.

But one critical factor habitually ignored in the public policy debate is that California also ranks near the bottom in spending for both school and public libraries: 41% of California schools no longer even have librarians. Public library expenditures per capita in Ventura County fall among the lowest 20% in nation. Library book budgets per capita rank below those of Mississippi, which has the worst state average in the country.

The link between strong libraries and developing good reading skills should be obvious. The Times has repeatedly reported on research that demonstrates this relationship. Research indicates that children who are read to at an early age--at home, at school or at library story hours--tend to be more verbal and use words better. Preschool kids who first look at picture books and then begin to pick out words are way ahead when they start school. And children who read proficiently by age 9 do better in all other academic subjects than those who don't.

Yet despite the scurry to correct California's educational deficiencies, libraries are still being shortchanged in the public funding process.


Because April 11-17 is National Library Week, it's a good time to consider the terrible toll that state fiscal decisions have taken on our public libraries over the past decade. To keep itself solvent in the early 1990s, state government raided local coffers to the tune of $3.8 billion, leaving counties such as Ventura severely strapped. Our 15-member Ventura County library system saw its revenue cut in half, from $10 million to $5 million, within only two years. Even now, Ventura County library revenue is less than two-thirds what it was seven years ago.

There are, however, several ways the state Legislature can start giving our public libraries the resources they need:

* The Public Library Foundation, established in 1982 to help provide a base level of library service in all California communities, regardless of their wealth, has never been fully funded. Full funding of $70 million would keep service at smaller county libraries, such as Port Hueneme, Fillmore and El Rio, from shrinking further and would improve the book budget for the entire system.

* Senate Bill 3 would put a library bond measure on the ballot in March 2000. If passed, it would provide $1 billion for construction and renovation of library buildings across the state. This would help overcrowded libraries in Camarillo and Ojai.

* A recent Times editorial supported fiscal reform efforts initiated in Sacramento to study the return of local money siphoned off by the state. With the belt-tightening measures and efficiencies they've achieved, our local libraries could be restored to health with the return of the $5 million taken away in the early 1990s.

Depending upon the particular public library branch, from one-third to more than half the patrons are children. If we Californians are truly committed to improving our kids' reading skills, then we must provide our libraries with adequate financial resources. Libraries are simply too important to education to allow them to continue as the poor stepchild of educational reform in California.

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