Reading Funds May Shift to Special Education

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Few within the Clinton administration or the Republican-controlled Congress would question that learning to read is the most crucial step in every youngster's formal education. Nor would they dispute that teachers need better training to harness new findings in reading research.

Lawmakers must agree soon on how--if at all--Washington should spend $210 million for a new federal literacy program.

But the partisan squabbling over how to help solve that problem could jeopardize the chances of any new federal money at all going toward improving reading in the nation's classrooms.

In the coming weeks, the Senate must pass legislation authorizing a new national literacy effort, or the money allotted by budgeters last year will shift automatically to special education state grants. With a tight voting schedule before the July 1 deadline mandated in this fiscal year's spending bill, the Senate will likely take up a reading bill this month to ensure time for passage and to work out any differences with the House.

The political debate and a recent report on reading research have prompted lawmakers and educators to ponder whether using a variety of methods in teaching students to read--and teaching teachers to use those strategies--would help reduce the number of students with learning disabilities in special education, and possibly ease its costs.

The report, commissioned by the National Research Council, urged an end to the phonics vs. whole-language debate--or, in simpler terms, the sounding out of words vs. deciphering words within context--and suggested a multifaceted approach works best for most children. ("NRC Panel Urges End to Reading Wars," March 25, 1998.)

"One of the concerns is we're misdiagnosing as a special education problem when it's a reading problem," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said at a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing on literacy issues last week. "We're diluting resources, and not dealing with an issue that's pretty straightforward."

Carol Hampton Rasco, a senior adviser in the Department of Education, calls the $210 million allotment "prevention" dollars. "Had they had the appropriate early training, then many of these children would likely not be placed in special education," she said in an interview last week.

President Clinton won praise for bringing the literacy problem to the forefront during his 1996 re-election campaign and last year's State of the Union Address. But his "America Reads Challenge"--which would spend $260 million this year to recruit 1 million volunteer reading tutors supported by Americorps members and reading specialists--was quickly shunned by Republicans and education groups.

Tutorial Assistance

House Republicans, led by Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, promptly discarded the White House proposal in favor of a plan that focuses on professional development and research. Called the Reading Excellence Act, the proposed measure would emphasize teacher training, proven pedogogical research, and "tutorial assistance grants." The grants would provide parents of eligible students with certificates for extra tutoring from school-approved providers. That plan has received mixed reviews.

Joe Karpinski, the Senate committee's spokesman, said the members planned this month to put forth a bill with language that mirrors the Reading Excellence Act. The Senate passed the bill as an amendment to its education-savings-accounts plan last month, but President Clinton has promised to veto that bill.

The Education Department is still opposed to the tutorial-assistance grants and a few other provisions in the bill, Ms. Rasco said, and has been working with Senate aides to find compromises. Department officials irked House Republicans last year when they declared that the Reading Excellence Act was based on Mr. Clinton's initial proposal. Rep. Goodling insisted the bill was a counterproposal to bring "more quality in our classrooms--not untrained volunteers."

But at last week's Senate committee hearing, GOP leaders gave no indication that they will attempt to change any provisions or introduce new language. Instead, committee Chairman James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., focusing on what he believes are recent developments in research and the need to disseminate those findings to teachers and teacher-educators, asked a panel of reseachers and medical experts how the money would best be spent.

G. Reid Lyon, the head of the learning-disabilities and developmental-psychology branch at the National Institutes of Health and a well-known reading researcher, told the committee that educators and schools of education have not kept up with the research in reading instruction. That failure, he contends, has caused many children to fall behind or end up in special education.

"There's a huge gap between what we understand and what teachers know," Mr. Lyon said. "It's frustrating to have this information and watch it sit by the wayside as colleges of education stick with the status quo."

Room for Both?

Advocates of a new literacy program may run into opposition from Republicans who want to increase funding for special education state grants, Mr. Karpinski said.

In the House, members are hopeful that Congress can accomplish both goals. Mr. Goodling, who has called for big increases in special education funding, believes that the reading initiative is needed as well, said Vic Klatt, the committee chairman's education policy coordinator.

Some education lobbyists say they would rather see the dollars go to special education programs that are already in place, given that they will likely see only increases for inflation under last year's balanced-budget agreement.

Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said the $210 million represents only a symbolic gesture. "That little dab of money is not going to achieve that goal, so why don't we spend it where we really need it?" he said.

Surprisingly, special education groups tend to be more supportive of the Reading Excellence Act, among them the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the Council for Exceptional Children.

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