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TWENTY-THREE million Americans cannot read this sentence. To help advance basic reading performance, a ``national literacy corps'' has been proposed. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy would provide 1,000 colleges and universities with some $25,000 each over a two-year period to cover administrative and supervisory costs. Students who enroll in courses in tutoring would coach in schools, prisons, agencies for handicapped and disturbed children, and adult literacy centers.

An initial program is set this fall in Boston, where a local bank is making five $5,000 grants to area colleges, hoping to encourage other private giving. A Washington group, the Washington Education Project, is running the program and is raising money to fund such tutoring courses elsewhere.

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The big money would come from $27.5 million in federal funding under the Kennedy bill. This would underwrite 10 million hours of tutoring by 165,000 students over two years, at 1,000 colleges.

Given Washington's tight-pocket thinking of late, the literacy corps approach will have to prove its effectiveness before government funding will follow. Students and campuses across the country should work to give the program the chance it deserves. No citizen should be left outside literacy's gate of progress.

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