District Misuse of Calif. Reading Funds Alleged

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Educators, like their students, must follow directions, or suffer the consequences.

That is the message California education officials are sending amid reports that some districts may be misusing state funds under the new reading initiative that the legislature passed last summer. To make clear its instructions, the state school board has decided to provide more guidance on the appropriate use of the money and audit districts that may be violating the law.

More than $13 million in teacher training funds were earmarked by the California legislature last year to help implement the initiative, which calls for a balanced approach to reading instruction with a greater emphasis on explicit, systematic phonics.

But some board members and state legislators have received complaints from parents that their children's schools are using the money for training in whole-language methods, which is forbidden under the new law. Officials are unclear how widespread the problem may be and whether districts are flouting the law or just misinformed about its requirements.

"Each of the board members had gotten several calls saying that some districts are not using the funds properly," said state board member Kathryn Dronenburg. "It's hard to tell if it is just a few incidences or widespread. I think the biggest problem is that districts are not aware of the specificity of the use of those monies."

The board voted at its meeting last month to send more specific guidelines to the state's 1,000 districts. It will later decide how to audit those districts suspected of using the money inappropriately.

The law spells out just what the funds are to be used for, such as "in-service programs in reading instruction that address systematically explicit phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, sound-symbol relationship, decoding, word-attack skills, [and] spelling."

Districts may spend local revenue for other types of training.

Slow Process

Implementation of the new reading law, which included $152 million in additional funds for textbooks that emphasize phonics as the basis of a balanced reading program, has been slow throughout much of the state.

In the nation's largest textbook adoption ever, the California board last December approved reading texts and materials that were more heavily focused on basic skills in an attempt to boost the state's dismal scores on national and state reading tests. ("Calif. Text Adoption Puts Emphasis on Phonics," Jan. 15, 1997.)

"It took time to develop the materials, and just now people are getting certified to deliver the program statewide" and provide training to teachers, said Alice R. Furry, an assistant superintendent for the Sacramento County office of education, which is under contract to administer the training portion of the initiative.

It will take several years, observers say, for information and the most up-to-date research to trickle down to districts.

Change may hit an even more stubborn roadblock in efforts to persuade teachers to abandon the state's decade-long commitment to whole-language instruction in favor of more basic skills. Many of the teachers--and thousands of new ones hired as part of the state's efforts to reduce K-3 class sizes--came out of elementary education programs that emphasized whole-language instruction.

"This material is just now reaching the field, so to assume that the educational environment we all work in is alert to it and automatically incorporating this into their teaching strategies, unfortunately, is not realistic," Ms. Furry said.

Whose Balance?

Moreover, there is still little agreement about what amount of skills instruction and literature is appropriate for students in the early grades. For state Assemblyman Steve Baldwin, who was one of the strongest promoters of the phonics legislation, what many districts are calling a balanced reading program is still far from what state lawmakers intended.

"The problem is, who determines what is appropriate balance," the Republican lawmaker said. "There are some programs that are called a balanced curriculum that are fine. But there are others that don't have enough intensive systematic phonics to make it worthwhile," he said. "School districts are interpreting on their own how they think phonics should be included."

For Margaret E. Dewar, who has taught reading to children in the Lodi district in Stockton for 39 years and is now a mentor to the district's newest recruits, teachers find the appropriate balance by constantly observing and evaluating their students' progress. She is wary of the new measure.

"We do not do a lot of direct and isolated phonics instruction, but phonics is embedded throughout literacy instruction," Ms. Dewar said. "I'm afraid with this initiative we're going to get phonics workbooks, and all students will march through these workbooks whether they need it or not," she said. "I've been there and done that, and nobody had any time to read."

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