Reading & Literacy

Directors of ‘Reading First’ Plagued by Anxiety Over Budget Cuts

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 07, 2008 4 min read
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The federal Reading First initiative is not likely to survive if massive funding cuts are not reversed, several state directors for the program told federal officials at a meeting here this week.

Key elements of the program—reading coaches in each school, professional development for teachers, core reading programs and interventions, data analysis, and accountability measures—must all be sustained to ensure that it improves reading instruction at participating schools, they maintained.

“How do you do all this when you are dealing with a 61 percent cut in funding?” asked Lynann Barbero, who oversees the Reading First grants for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “When you put all the pieces into a structure and pull out one of the pieces, it falls apart.”

The budget for the program was cut from the $1 billion it had received each year since it was rolled out in 2002 to $393 million for the 2008 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The cuts came amid a backlash among some members of Congress after a federal review suggested conflicts of interest occurred among the officials and contractors who helped implement it. Some had ties to commercial reading programs used in participating schools. In his budget for 2009, President Bush has proposed restoring the money.

But anxiety is widespread among state Reading First administrators that many of the gains they’ve made in training teachers and improving instruction in schools with large numbers of struggling students will evaporate without a continuous effort.

“Reading First has allowed us to do the kind of professional development that teachers need … to get down in the trenches and work with them,” said Debora Scheffel, the director of Colorado Reading First, which oversees grants at 49 elementary schools. “We can’t do the kind of detailed work we want to do without the kind of funding it provides.”

Like a ‘Cure for Cancer’

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told the attendees she is working on getting the funding restored for fiscal 2009 and urged them to marshal other resources to keep their momentum going.

“If ever there was a program that was rooted in research and science and fact, this is it,” she said. “This is [like] the cure for cancer.”

While a federally sponsored survey of Reading First schools has found that most grantees are following program requirements and reporting test score gains, the only federal study to examine student achievement data has yet to be released. It has been held up in the peer-review process since this past fall and is now expected to be issued this spring.

Ms. Spellings said states will be given some flexibility to adjust their Reading First plans to help them deal with the budget cuts, but that they should remain committed to the program’s main tenets of using scientifically based materials and instruction and regularly monitoring students’ progress.

Federal officials organized several sessions with the state directors to help them find ways to meet the rigorous requirements of the program. One panel featured Department of Education officials representing other federal programs, including Title I and special education. They outlined ways states and districts can use various pots of money to support Reading First projects. While some of those programs could be used to support Reading First schools, the rules for doing so are complex.

Another session listed strategies for deciding which districts and schools could be discontinued. Those that are not in complete compliance with the program requirements or have shown insufficient progress, for example, could be cut before the more successful grantees, according to Deborah Spitz, who works in the Reading First office at the Education Department.

“We know that you have to make decisions on cutting some grants, and that’s not an easy thing to do,” she said. “You may be in a situation where you have to cut high-performing programs.”

‘Misplaced Priorities’

Some states, like Colorado, have as much as a third of their funding remaining from the previous fiscal year, which can be carried over, thereby reducing the immediate impact, Ms. Spitz said. Some members of Congress have also criticized the budget reduction, most recently House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, in a speech at the annual legislative conference of the National Urban League this week.

“Instead of funding Reading First last year, Congress funded earmarks—a classic case of misplaced priorities,” he said.

In a report released this week, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, argues that if Congress continues Reading First, it should institute stricter regulations, particularly in prescribing which reading textbooks and assessments are deemed effective. The report calls on Congress to either set “clear, narrowly defined criteria” for the types of reading materials and approaches grantees can use, or “get the government out of the reading business altogether.”

In a lively discussion of the funding situation, state and federal officials at the Reading First meeting here all agreed that it is worth saving.

“I was a principal of a Reading First school in Crab Orchard, Kentucky,” said Jim Ward, who left the rural school to work in the state Reading First office. “I was eight years in that building, and I saw more progress with Reading First than anything I’ve seen in my 20 years in education. This process taught me how to be an instructional leader in my building.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Directors of ‘Reading First’ Plagued by Anxiety Over Budget Cuts

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