GOP Tutoring Grants Inspire Concerns, Praise

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A new Republican proposal for boosting elementary school students' literacy skills is winning kudos in some quarters, but also raising questions and concerns about vouchers.

The Reading Excellence Act, sponsored by the chairman of the House education committee, would authorize a reading program for elementary grades that, through competitive grants to states, puts more emphasis on teacher training and proven research than President Clinton's similar initiative, America Reads.

The GOP-backed bill, however, also includes a provision that has caused most Democrats and some education groups to back away from it. The bill, HR 2614, would give "tutorial-assistance grants" to school districts in economic enterprise or empowerment zones to pass to Title I-eligible schools serving high numbers of underprivileged students.

Rep. Bill Goodling

Children from those schools who have problems with phonics and decoding skills would be eligible for tutorial-assistance grants under the plan unveiled this month by Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa. The school districts would keep a list of tutorial providers from which parents would choose.

Voucher in Disguise?

Democrats and some education groups call the grants a thinly veiled attempt to create vouchers.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley wrote in an Oct. 8 letter to Mr. Goodling that the tutorial grants would be "unnecessarily costly [and] bureaucratic. ... There would be no guarantee that the tutoring programs would be connected to or supportive of the school's reading program."

America Reads, President Clinton's proposal, emphasizes volunteer tutors. He wants to mobilize 1 million volunteers to provide after-school tutoring to students who have problems reading, and bring in 30,000 reading specialists and AmeriCorps workers to coordinate the efforts. ("Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned," Feb. 26, 1997.)

Richard W. Riley

Without the tutorial grants, the GOP bill would have been a "happy marriage" of the ideas of Republicans and Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Mark Zuckerman, a spokesman for Democrats on the committee. The proposal was the result of months of negotiations between the parties, he said. But with the grants' inclusion, the bill lost support from Democrats and some in education.

"In essence, it's an after-school voucher," said Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers. "We see it as a step toward privatizing what should be public services."

The 2.3 million-member National Education Association also opposes the tutoring grants, and has concerns about other language in the GOP bill that would allow states to coordinate funding of Even Start, parts of Title I, and other early-childhood programs with adult education, said Adele Robinson, an NEA senior professional associate.

At Schools' Direction

But a GOP staffer in the House said the groups' voucher concerns were unfounded. "There is a huge difference between a voucher and this," said Vic Klatt, education policy coordinator for the House Education and Workforce Committee. "This is directed entirely by the public school system. They come up with the list of providers and the parent chooses a provider."

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va., also disagreed with critics of the tutoring grants. Schools, he said, often use private providers for Title I and other education-related services, and this plan would be no different.

Mr. Hunter also called the GOP plan "a much better way to go." The money in it would be more concentrated on schools that need help and take a much-needed, research-based approach to literacy, he added.

Are "tuition assistance grants" a valid way to provide needy students with quality supplemental teaching, or are they vouchers in another form? Discuss their potential consequences for schools in our on-line Town Meeting.

But the future of any new federal reading program remains in doubt. The $260 million pegged to early-elementary literacy in this year's proposed education budget--which Congress plans to vote on this week--would not be distributed until Oct. 1, 1998. And, if Congress fails to authorize a reading plan by next April 1, the $260 million will be reallocated to special education--a funding priority for many Republicans.

In addition, Mr. Goodling decided earlier this month to hold up work on reading legislation to protest the White House's efforts to advance its plan for new national tests of student achievement in reading and math. ("GOP Plays Hardball To Block National Tests," Oct. 15, 1997.)

But Mr. Klatt said the bill could come up for a committee vote "at any time."

Research Base

Even before Mr. Goodling announced his plan, several education groups had questioned whether America Reads would create problems for schools because of its reliance on volunteers. Many also questioned the methods that would be used to train the tutors, citing concerns that recent research in reading would not be applied.

Mr. Goodling has blasted the America Reads plan on several occasions, saying reading problems stem from teachers who are not properly trained to teach such skills. His plan would rely on the National Institute for Literacy to head up efforts to disseminate reading research, which would be sent to all schools, districts, and agencies that receive funds from basic federal education programs. States that applied for the grants would be required to describe how their programs would incorporate reliable reading research and professional development.

"We like the emphasis on research, and the programs that are based on real research in reading," said Sally McConnell, the government-relations director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va.

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