Published Online: January 14, 2008
Published in Print: January 16, 2008, as Massive Funding Cuts to ‘Reading First’ Generate Worries for Struggling Schools

Massive Funding Cuts to ‘Reading First’ Generate Worries for Struggling Schools

The reading coaches, professional-development programs, and instructional materials that are the cornerstones of the Reading First program and are credited with improving instruction in struggling schools may be threatened by a deep cut included in the 2008 federal budget, officials and observers say.

The reduction of more than 60 percent—from nearly $1 billion each year since the program was rolled out in 2002 to $393 million for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1—will likely inhibit further improvements and test the sustainability of the changes Reading First has fostered over the past six years. The cut is part of an omnibus spending bill President Bush signed into law last month.

“A 60 percent cut—this is huge,” said Joni Gillis, who oversees Oregon Reading First. Her state is expecting its funding to drop this fiscal year from nearly $10 million to less than $4 million. The program “is not going to be like it was, but the best practices, the solid core instruction, how we look at data to inform that instruction,” she said, are “behavior changes [that] will stick.”

Ms. Gillis and other state officials across the country are now trying to find ways to bolster the program, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, with other federal and state dollars.

The U.S. Department of Education is working with states to identify other potential sources to pay for the program, such as with federal Title I and Title II money, according to Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. The funding cuts do not release Reading First grantees from any of the program’s strict regulatory requirements, she noted.

“States will need to make the determination [of where to make cuts], but it will probably mean 60 percent fewer schools and 60 percent fewer children” benefiting from the program, Ms. Farris said.

Effects of Probes

While widely viewed as beneficial for improving reading instruction in elementary schools with large proportions of disadvantaged children, Reading First—President Bush’s flagship program in the subject—was the focus of several federal investigations and congressional hearings from 2005 to 2007.

Reports by the Education Department’s inspector general suggested that federal officials and consultants had overstepped their authority in steering states to adopt certain curricula and assessments for use in the program, and that there were conflicts of interest among federal decisionmakers who had ties to commercial products purchased by Reading First schools. ("'Reading First' Information Sent to Justice Dept.," April 25, 2007.)

Cutting Deep

States will lose slightly more than 60 percent of their Reading First funding this fiscal year. A sampling shows how significant the across-the-board cuts are for individual states.

Those charges, and the political maneuvering in the federal budget process, may have doomed the program to taking a big hit, according to Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that has conducted state surveys on Reading First since the program’s inception.

“The controversy with the inspector general reports and a feeling on the part of members of Congress that they had to somehow discipline the administration for poor conduct” were factors, said Mr. Jennings, a former House aide to Democrats. “Then, when the president vetoed the appropriations bill that would have increased funding for education, … Congress put the money where they wanted rather than in Bush’s priorities.”

Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had threatened such cuts last spring after two hearings by the House Education and Labor Committee and a Senate report that outlined management and ethics concerns.

“The bill includes $1.1 billion in program cuts and consolidations with a significant cut to the Reading First program (-$629 million), which the administration used in its own version of ‘earmarking,’ steering billions of dollars to favored publishers and individuals,” Mr. Obey’s press release on the budget measure said. Other members of Congress, however, support the program.

“We’re disappointed to see cuts to Reading First, a program that has a track record of proven results,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the education committee, said in a statement last week. “With the Department of Education and Congress working throughout the last year to improve structural weaknesses in the program, it’s hard to understand why the program is now being cut so dramatically. Ultimately, the result of these cuts will be fewer resources to help children learn to read.”

The administration’s proposal for a similar program to promote scientifically based math instruction did not receive any of the $250 million President Bush had asked for. Math Now, part of the America Competes Act that was approved with bipartisan support in Congress in August, would have provided grants for elementary and middle school math programs. Congress had authorized $95 million for Math Now, and another $95 million for improving high school math instruction. Neither program was in the final budget. ("Bush Scores Modest Victory on Ed. Budget," Jan. 9, 2008.)

Cut Too Little?

For some critics of the reading program, the cuts were insufficient.

“As it stands now, I don’t think Reading First should be funded at all,” Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, wrote in an e-mail. “It imposes … heavy doses of phonemic awareness and intensive phonics, extremist approaches that are not supported by the research. It hasn’t worked, [and] there is evidence of serious corruption/conflict of interest in the awarding of Reading First funds,” he said.

Mr. Krashen argues that the results of state, national, and international tests have not shown significant improvements to justify the investment in Reading First. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, for example, scores for the nation’s 4th graders have increased only slightly since the program was implemented. And their performance on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—which gauges reading skills of children in 39 countries—did not improve from 2001 to 2006.

Many states have reported gains for participating schools on state reading tests and classroom assessments, but the results vary across districts and states, and the data are generally not comparable because of the range of tests that are used in the program. Research has also shown that many states do not set their bar as high as NAEP does, making it even harder to judge how well students are performing. The interim results of one federally financed study have not yet been released, and other independent empirical studies are under way.

Regardless of the budget cut, officials in several states said they are prepared to stay the course, citing the benefits they have seen from the structured instruction, assessments, and intervention programs that Reading First requires. Continuing to pay for reading coaches and professional development, however, could prove difficult amid tough times for many state budgets as well, some say.

In Oregon, Ms. Gillis said many of the tenets of Reading First have become part of the statewide literacy plan. Several districts that received Reading First grants have been adapting the model to schools that do not receive the funding, she said.

In the 20,000-student Hillsboro district, for example, just four of 23 elementary schools receive Reading First money. But teachers in other schools in the district have taken part in professional-development sessions, and officials plan to adopt new textbooks for all schools that reflect the principles of Reading First, according to Brenda Kephart, Hillsboro’s director of school improvement. Ms. Kephart said the district, located outside Portland, will focus most of its energy on one school that entered the program just three years ago. Another school, David Hill Elementary, will receive additional state money to serve as a model for other Oregon schools.

That school, where most students are English-language learners, more than doubled the proportion of its 3rd graders meeting state benchmarks—to 76 percent—from 2003 to 2005.

“We would love to see some of our other Title I schools have the same opportunities as our Reading First schools, but that will not be a possibility,” Ms. Kephart said. “We have seen such success, and the data is unbelievable. So it really is a shame that some of the controversy around Reading First overshadowed some of that positive data.”

Teachers in all the Hillsboro district’s high-poverty schools have already adopted the Reading First model, according to Christie Petersen, a teacher on special assignment at the district’s central office.

“The work in the Reading First schools lit the fire” and shaped the district literacy plan, Ms. Petersen said. “As one is phasing out in name only, the best practices for kids are pretty solidly in place,” she said, “and teachers are embracing them, and they are becoming part of their daily practice.

Vol. 27, Issue 19, Pages 1,10

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