Published Online: November 14, 2013

Brownback announcing Kansas reading initiative

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday proposed a new reading initiative aimed at boosting proficiency by using $12 million in each of the next two years from federal assistance funds aimed at low-income families.

The program, Brownback said, would be paid for through the Department for Children and Families using funds from federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program that typically provides cash assistance to families in poverty.

A number of high-poverty urban and rural school districts would be targeted through after-school reading programs. The program will be evaluated by education researchers at the University of Kansas to determine effectiveness.

"The intent is to keep people from going into welfare," Brownback said before his news conference.

Brownback was scheduled to formally announce the initiative at the Topeka Boys and Girls Club on Thursday afternoon. Expected to join him were school officials from Chetopa, Galena and Pittsburg and representatives of the University of Kansas, the Kansas Enrichment Network and other organizations.

The Republican governor has focused on improving grade-school reading proficiency since he first ran for governor in 2010. This year, he proposed legislation to hold back students who were not proficient in reading. The measure was heavily modified before stalling in the Legislature.

According to 2013 state assessment results released Tuesday by the Kansas Department of Education, 70.2 percent of all third-grade students receiving either free or reduced-priced lunches were at or above proficient in reading, down from 75.3 percent in 2012. The department uses eligibility for the lunch program as an indicator of poverty and those students who are potentially at-risk of academic failure.

Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said Thursday that the agency looked forward to working with school districts and DCF on the new initiative.

"We are supportive of any initiative designed to assist students in being successful, especially in reading. The use of other agencies and funding streams benefits all," she said in an email to The Associated Press.

State spending on TANF programs is expected to decline by 11 percent in the coming year because of the policy changes that have left fewer Kansas families eligible for assistance. Those changes have increased the work requirement for eligible families to encourage them to find jobs and reduce the need for public assistance.

A children's advocate said the use of TANF funds for other purposes was an inappropriate use of the resources.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the Kansas Action for Children, said the initiative would shift money away from helping families who need assistance in temporary situations for basic needs like food, shelter and utilities.

"It's short-sighted to take money from basic needs. These are the poorest of poor families," Cotsoradis said.

While she supports the goal of improving literacy, Cotsoradis said children, from infants to 5 years old, would benefit more from increases in monthly TANF assistance than from school support later in life.

According to the DCF budget request, a family of three receives approximately $403 in cash assistance monthly. Families must earn 25 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $5,000 a year, to qualify for assistance.

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