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Op-Ed: With His New Book, Governor Newsom Hits a Home Run as a Dyslexia Advocate

By Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit

When it was announced back in 2019 that Governor Gavin Newsom was in negotiations to write a children's book about dyslexia, we were not impressed.

In fact, we sent him a letter suggesting he wait until he had used the power of his office to improve the educational opportunities for dyslexic students in California. We further suggested that he instead lead an effort to “institute the science of reading to improve literacy in every school in every school district in this state.”

Only then, we wrote, would it be appropriate for him to write a book about dyslexia for kids.

We weren’t surprised he never answered.

And we have been disappointed that until now, he has not done more to support California’s dyslexic students, who number 1 in 5. In a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee, he admitted as much: “I’ve been cautious," he said. "I haven’t done what I wanted to do at the level of scale yet, because I feel it’s a little self-indulgent.”

Self-indulgent? Hardly, considering that the number of underserved dyslexic students and struggling readers numbers into the millions. But as parents of dyslexic sons, we’re willing to reconsider our previous skepticism and disappointment after reading his new book, Ben & Emma’s Big Hit.

The colorful, baseball-themed book is a very contemporary take on the genre of empowering and informative first-person dyslexia stories, which range from picture books for children to memoirs for adults. The governor, having weathered many storms while in office, has embarked on a high-profile national media tour to promote the book and raise awareness about dyslexia.

An honest discussion, After watching his candid conversation on “The View” with fellow dyslexic Whoopi Goldberg and other hosts, we’re willing to believe he will do better.

Their honest discussion about their respective childhood struggles, and ongoing challenges with this language-based learning difference, was very affecting, and surely illuminating for those who may not know much about the subject. And his expression of parental heartache over the challenges of two of his four children, who are struggling to keep up in school, is relatable for every parent in the same situation.

As the governor uses his high profile to include dyslexia advocacy and, more importantly, move into action, he has the opportunity to influence positively the lives of millions of children and their families, not just in California, but across the nation.

Political foes are quick to point out that Newsom was one of the lucky ones: He was identified early and had the benefit of exceptional private instruction from a range of educators.

He has admitted he was blessed to get the kind of help that not every child receives. And the well-to-do governor also has the means to send his own children to private school. He should have done more, they say. We agree, but we’re willing to let him off the hook due to the daunting unexpected challenges of Covid and the recall election.

Critics also complain that he should be focused on governing, not talking about reading struggles.

That’s where we take issue: We consider shining a spotlight on reading struggles ~ and what to do about the situation ~ a fundamental aspect of governing, of improving the lives of every resident of the state, and a preventative measure to address virtually every societal issue, from poverty to homelessness to incarceration.

Newsom is hardly the first prominent politician to discuss dyslexia; it’s an issue that transcends political orientation.

The bipartisan Congressional Dyslexia Caucus was established years ago; Rep. Julia Brownley of Ventura and Bruce Westerman (R-AR) serve as co-chairs; former Rep. Lois Capps joined at our request during her term, and Rep. Salud Carbajal is a current member.

Eric Adams, New York's newly elected Mayor, regularly speaks about the need for universal screening for dyslexia in NYC schools. And Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) the parent of a dyslexic child, advocated strongly for screening federal prisoners for dyslexia as part of the First Step Act.

The sad truth, however, is that students in 30 states and even federal prisoners are more likely to have their dyslexia identified than students in California.

But that sad fact may be ready to change, at least if it’s up to Newsom and his new approach to addressing dyslexia, which includes directing significant financial resources to screening students, as reported in a recent interview in the Sacramento Bee

That would be a huge step forward, because the California Teachers Association has strongly opposed dyslexia screening for years and used its political clout to table a bipartisan dyslexia screening bill, co-sponsored by our local state Senator, Monique Limon, just last year.

Early identification of students with dyslexia would have a profound impact on students’ educational and emotional lives. And it would have a significant effect on the state’s economy; a recent study estimated that unidentified dyslexia, cost Californians $12 billion in 2020.

Available local resources. Under the auspices of The Dyslexia Project, we have created a community resource center to address the needs of struggling readers. We regularly meet with parents and community members in the center, to raise awareness, and provide support and share resources.

We are familiar with the value of first-person books about reading challenges, like this new one penned by Newsom. Both of us have read them to our own children and shared them with others. We have stocked the shelves of our Center with scores of volumes written by dyslexic authors as varied as Henry Winkler, Patricia Polacco, Goldie Hawn, Charles Schwab and Paul Orfalea.

The very good news about our literacy advocacy is that the explicit, sequential, multi-sensory approach to reading instruction that works for dyslexic students is also the approach that has proven effective for other struggling students, especially those with low background knowledge, low literacy in the home, and students of low socio-economic status.

Far too many parents like us have lost sleep and shed tears borne of frustration, anger, and shame over the never-ending battle with the educational establishment, trying to obtain the proper instruction and support services for our dyslexic children. Just to teach them to read, write and spell, and not feel terrible about themselves. It’s been daunting for far too long.

The governor of California is finally taking action to end the anguish, and we applaud him for it.

P.S. The hardcover book is set in the dyslexia-friendly font, Open Dyslexic, and all proceeds are earmarked to benefit the International Dyslexia Association.

Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit have collaborated for years through The Dyslexia Project. Their photographic work-in-progress, “InVisible: 1 in 5, the Face of Dyslexia” and dyslexia assemblage art are on display at their resource center. Hours by appointment;

Images from "Ben and Emma's Big Hit": Cover of Newsom's book; An inside spread: classroom confusion; Fleeing the classroom - a coping strategy; Endpaper: positive messages throughout.

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