Well-read Newt suggests learn and earn

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The Independent Online
Washington - Newt Gingrich has come up with a plan to combat illiteracy in America: pay schoolchildren $2 for every book they read, writes John Carlin.

The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives chose a primary school in a poor Washington neighbourhood for the national launch of a programme - "Learning by Earning" - that he helped initiate four years ago in his native Atlanta.

``Baseball players go on strike to get more money,'' Mr Gingrich told 400 children packed into the auditorium of Moten elementary school. ``Rock stars sing to make money. We want you to work at learning how to read so well that some day you can earn a very good living.''

Faced with official statistics that show one-quarter of American adults, or 43 million people, are functionally illiterate, the mercurial Mr Gingrich has come up with an idea that undercuts his commitment to frugal spending but has the all-American virtue of resting on the principle that if you have a problem, throw money at it.

For every book a child reads he or she will receive $2 (£1.30); for every 100, $200. Leading the brat-pack in the Atlanta pilot-project is a child who picked up $414 for the 207 books she demolished in 1991. Part of the cash came from Mr Gingrich himself.

An irony liberal commentators have been prompt to identify is that the very same Mr Gingrich is spearheading a Republican move in Congress to cut free lunches for poor school-children from the federal budget. "Not to worry," said a columnist in the Washington Post. "The kids can read a book on the way to school and use the $2 to buy lunch. If the meal costs only $1.50, they can put the rest toward buying a tape of the Gingrich lecture on giraffe hunting.''

Or perhaps towards obtaining a tape of a speech the Speaker gave on American foreign policy in Washington on Wednesday night. It remained in doubt whether the speech left anyone the wiser. The only conclusion one could draw with certainty was that Mr Gingrich had read an awful lot of books. He ranged from Pitt the Younger to the Aztecs, from the Incas to ancient Chinese dynasties.

The thought suggested itself to the more bewildered members of Mr Gingrich's audience that his mother might have done the world a favour had she paid the boy Newt to keep off the books.