Reading the Red Ink

Governmental funding for Literacy Volunteers of Tucson is in jeopardy.

Most local social service organizations that receive money from the State of Arizona are dreading the upcoming fiscal year.

Because of the economic doldrums, beginning July 1, considerably fewer tax dollars will be distributed to these groups. But one Tucson agency might consider itself lucky if its governmental funding "only" gets cut by 25 percent.

Founded in 1969, Literacy Volunteers of Tucson today has almost 200 tutors working with 400 adult students in individual or small group settings. Once or twice a week, these people meet to work on either learning English as a second language or improving basic literacy skills.

The need for this service is highlighted in LVT's current newsletter. "Nearly one in five adults in Arizona is functionally illiterate," it states. "Nearly half of all adults who are functionally illiterate live in poverty."

A small staff and an annual budget of $155,000 is used to train volunteers, coordinate their efforts and enroll people into the program. But not everyone wanting a tutor can be accommodated, and even without advertising its free service, the agency's waiting list sometimes exceeds 50.

The students are usually people for whom other literacy programs in town just don't work. Because of their jobs, or since they are at such low educational levels, or simply because they're terrified of a classroom setting, these people require the flexible and personal attention LVT offers.

But despite its good work and proven success record, governmental regulations have recently put more than half of the organization's funding in jeopardy. The federal government now requires educational agencies that receive tax dollars like LVT to demonstrate that at least 40 percent of its students have advanced 2.5 grade levels within a 12-month period.

"That is way beyond what our tutors can do in one or two hours each week," says Executive Director Betty Stauffer. "An agency like ours being evaluated in that way causes a disconnect, because it doesn't work for us or a lot of other organizations."

With approximately $60,000--40 percent of its budget--riding on the outcome, Stauffer met a few weeks ago with officials from the Arizona Department of Education, which distributes both state and federal funds to LVT. They were sympathetic, she said, and wanted to work with her, but no promises were made.

Because of the state's well-publicized budgetary problems, the Tucson agency will see a one-quarter reduction in the $80,000 of government money it now receives under the best-case scenario. The worst-case outlook is that LVT will lose all of its tax-funded support since it can't meet the federal requirements.

But there is hope. According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Education in Phoenix, they have been able to successfully work with five other groups facing similar situations. But whatever happens with its government funding, Stauffer indicates LVT will have to find new ways to raise money.

"We're preparing two early education grants in cooperation with the YMCA," she says, "and on Nov. 2, we'll be holding a book fiesta at the Doubletree Hotel." Plus, the organization is working with the Basha's grocery chain to offer tutoring services to some of its employees.

Even if these additional monetary sources are successful, the government dollars are still important to the agency. Stauffer will be talking further with the Department of Education about funding, but says, "We'll end this budget year in the red and will cover the deficit out of our savings. That situation, though, can't last much longer."

It is obviously important for the community that the volunteer service LVT provides be continued. It is also vital for a lot of local individuals trying to improve their literacy skills, such as John Pennix.

"For the first time since I got out of high school in 1988, I've finished reading a book," he says proudly. "I like to finish short stories now so I can move on to the next one. I've also learned to work on the computer better."

When asked if he would go into a classroom setting for literary assistance if his one-on-one sessions weren't available anymore, John says, "I guess I would do it, but I wouldn't like it. This way, I get more freedom to pick out what story I want to read, or what newspaper article I want to look at."

What would be the impact on John if Literacy Volunteers of Tucson could no longer provide him with a tutor?

"I might pick up a book and spend an hour trying to read it," he answers, "but I'd get frustrated and probably never pick it up again. So I would stop expanding my learning process."

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