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Wednesday, July 9, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson reads to kids during low-key visit to Madison

The stop was one of a few Johnson made in a low-key trip to Madison.
Credit:Phil Ejercito
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Today, Sen. Ron Johnson read two books to about a dozen children at the Access Community Health Center on Park Street, promoting Reach Out and Read, a national program that aims to get young children exposed to books.

Of course, it is programs like these that are currently under attack by Republicans, including Johnson, who are pushing for huge spending cuts to balance the budget.

The irony isn't lost on Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, who teaches medicine at the UW-Madison and practices at the Access Community Health Center on Park Street, a non-profit clinic for low-income families.

"When you hear all this talk in Washington to 'cut, cut, cut,' well, this is one of the effects of that," Navsaria said shortly before Johnson arrived at the center Thursday afternoon.

Navsaria, who has spearheaded a Reach Out and Read program at American Family Children's Hopsital, says getting kids reading at a young age has a huge impact on their mental development. And those who are read to are much better prepared to learn when they go to school.

Reach Out and Read gives books to doctors who give them to children when they come in for check ups, so they can stress the importance reading has to the health and development, Navsaria says. Or, as he told told the kids: "Books are really important for your brain."

Since being formed in 1989 in Boston, Reach Out and Read has grown by leaps and bounds. The U.S. Department of Education starting funding it in 2001, though Navsaria says today most of the program's funding come from sources other than the federal government. Navsaria said the loss of federal funds is a "significant blow" to the program.

Johnson arrived around 2 p.m. and read two books: How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague; and Book! Book! Book! by Deborah Bruss. The moral of the dinosaur book, Johnson told the kids, was "don't take shortcuts." Some of the kids interrupted him occasionally, but there were no hardball questions about funding cuts or the deficit.

The stop was one of a few Johnson made in a low-key trip to Madison -- he also appeared on Vicki McKenna's talk show and was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser -- closed to the press -- sponsored by the Dane County Young Republicans at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

After the reading, Johnson got a short tour of the clinic and answered questions outside from two reporters. He denied there was any irony in his visit to the clinic despite his calls for drastic spending cuts. "We have to take a look at all our federal spending and prioritize it," he said, noting that 40 cents of every dollar spent by the federal government is borrowed.

But did the senator think funding should be cut for clinics like the one on Park Street? "Americans want a strong safety net. We want to help people. But you want to spend dollars where they'll be most effective."

"Just because I'm a Republican doesn't mean I don't want to help people," he added. "I think government should help people help themselves."

Another reporter asked him what books he used to read to his children. Johnson said he loved to read his son Curious George books. But when his son got bored of those, Johnson said, "I actually started reading him the Wall Street Journal. Let's read about the harmful effects government regulations can have."

Navsaria was glad Johnson came to visit. "This is a chance to show him how effective this program can be," he said. "There's very little I can do for $3 that can be this effective."

There are, of course, more expensive, though less effective, alternatives, he says: "We can invest a few dollars on books now, or we can spend more on juvenile delinquency programs later."

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