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Report highlights cost of poor writing

NEW YORK -- States spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees, according to a new report that says the indirect costs of sloppy writing hurt taxpayers.

The National Commission on Writing, in a report to be released tomorrow, found that good writing skills are at least as important in the public sector as in private industry. Poor writing not only befuddles citizens, but also slows down the government as bureaucrats struggle with unclear instructions or have to redo poorly written work.

''It's impossible to calculate the ultimate cost of lost productivity because people have to read things two and three times," said Arkansas's governor, Mike Huckabee, vice chairman of the National Governors Association, which conducted the survey for the commission.

The commission, established by the College Board, drew attention with its first report in 2003, which outlined problems with how writing is taught in American schools and proposed remedies. The group's second report, last year, tried to drum up support for writing education by highlighting the value that business and industry leaders place on communication skills.

This year, the commission surveyed human resource directors who oversee nearly 2.7 million state government employees, and panel found that writing skills are even more important there than in the private sector. Two-thirds of the companies surveyed in the 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers, while 100 percent of the 49 states responding to the anonymous survey said it was. More than 75 percent said they take writing skills into account when hiring.

But while 70 percent of state managers said large majorities of their professional employees had adequate skills, just one-third said their clerical and support staff did. The report estimates that states spend $221 million annually on remedial writing training.

''You have to be able to write, convert an idea, and turn it into words," said Bob Kerrey, a former US senator and governor from Nebraska who is chairman of the commission.

In public office, ''I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible," Kerrey said. He shudders to think how the Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago today, would have read in government worker-speak.

''It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration," Kerrey said.

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