Imagination Library faces budget cuts

Imagination Library faces budget cuts

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2011 8:01 pm
By: Lady Bird, Special to The Press

A Tennessee kindergarten teacher once shared a humbling story with me. 

On the first day of school, she asked each of her students to bring their favorite book into class the following day. 

When the children arrived in the morning, books in-hand, one little girl stood  out: she’d brought the telephone directory – the only printed material in her home.

This child’s circumstance isn’t uncommon in Tennessee, as thousands begin their formal education having never even seen a book – much less owned a personal library of up to 60 books before kindergarten.  

Twelve million deliveries later, something truly remarkable has transpired in The Volunteer State.

 Amid discouraging news about Tennessee’s educational performance indicators, one area in which we’ve managed to receive top marks is early childhood—due in part to our unique backing of Dolly’s  Imagination Library. 

Infants, babies, toddlers, preschoolers: all are eligible to receive a monthly delivery of a high-quality, age-appropriate book — at no cost to the family, and regardless of income,  thereby serving as a cultural and experiential common denominator among myriad socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. 

This month, nearly 60 percent of the state’s under-five population will find a book in their mailboxes (214,000); over 200,000 have “graduated.”

When Gov. Phil Bredesen partnered with Dolly Parton, he allocated State funds to cover half the $24/per-child annual cost, asking each  county to raise the other half-share. 

He also established the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation to handle statewide  administration; serve as a resource to countywide non-profit sponsors; and solicit funds from corporations, foundations, and others to support economically-distressed communities – ensuring universal access to these wonderful books.

Devoted grassroots volunteers are daily registering children and fundraising for their local programs. 

These good Samaritans – ranging   from business leaders, to health care professionals, to journalists, librarians, teachers and Rotarians – resoundingly affirm that our youth will be better prepared for a 21st Century, global economy through early exposure to books and reading. 

Evidence is in their corner: a 2007 Tennessee Board of Regents study found that pre-K/kindergarten teachers identified known Imagination Library participants in their classrooms as better prepared to learn.  

In addition, a national study found that preschoolers who were exposed to books and reading entered school with a 20,000 word listening vocabulary versus 3,000 words for those without a books and reading background.

Included among local champions are Governor and First Lady Haslam, who were formidably connected with the Knox County Imagination Library. 

Mrs. Haslam, even, held a leadership role as a key philanthropic volunteer.  Thanks to the Haslams’ support and that of many others, Knox County boasts an enrollment of three-quarters of their under-five population, an amazing feat for an urbanized area.

With its hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries and volunteer stakeholders, Tennessee’s Imagination Library must become an  “untouchable” in the Education budget. 

It subsists on a shoestring in view of the astronomical taxpayer bill for prisons and criminal justice programs, as there’s overwhelming research correlating public  investments in early education with the brain development and literacy skills required to produce well-balanced, prepared, productive young people, who are more concerned with knowledge and achievement, than they are with getting into trouble and falling behind.

Gov. Haslam and the General Assembly should maintain the State’s investment in the Imagination Library, and the GBBF – because early exposure to books and reading is one of the most significant contributors toward our children’s success in school, and in life.

Editor’s note: Lady Bird is the immediate-past president of the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, having served from 2004-2009. 

Learn more about Tennessee’s statewide Imagination Library at

wcp 2/10/11

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