Reading & Literacy

House Panel Would Kill ‘Reading First’ Funding

By Alyson Klein — June 19, 2008 4 min read
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The controversial federal Reading First program would be eliminated under a fiscal 2009 spending measure approved unanimously today by a House Appropriations subcommittee.

In explaining the decision to zero out the program, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cited the results of a preliminary federal evaluation of Reading First, released May 1, which found that the program has had no impact on students’ reading comprehension.

Reading First “has been plagued with mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and cronyism, as documented by the inspector general,” Rep. Obey said, referring to a series of reports by the U.S. Department of Education’s watchdog that suggested conflicts of interest had occurred among officials and contractors who helped implement the program in its early years.

“Moreover, a scientifically rigorous study released by the Department of Education found that the program has no discernible impact on student reading performance,” Rep. Obey, who is also the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles education funding, said in reference to the evaluation by the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the department.

The interim report by the IES did not cover overall student reading performance.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement: “Reading First has done so much to crack the code on how to get kids to read. It would be tragic to cut the nation’s only reading prorogram when so many policymakers and teachers know it’s working to increase achievement.”

Program Defended

Rep. James Walsh of New York, the top Republican on the education spending subcommittee, said that Rep. Obey’s description of the findings of the study “doesn’t track with my experience” of the Reading First program. Schools around his Syracuse, N.Y., congressional district reported that the program had raised student achievement “very, very quickly,” he said.

Previous federal surveys of state and local officials have indicated that the program has led to changes in classroom practices and improved student test scores in many places.

The Reading First program was created as part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Reading First state grants were funded at about $1 billion a year annually until last December, when lawmakers, citing the allegations of mismanagement, slashed it to $393 million for fiscal 2008.

President Bush’s budget request for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1, proposes to restore the funding to $1 billion.

Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del., said his organization agreed with the committee’s conclusions about the mismanagement of the program, but said he would encourage lawmakers not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Congress should consider funding professional development and high-quality reading programs that are more “broad-based” than many of the programs financed under Reading First, relying on input from classroom teachers, he said.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, based in Washington, said the Reading First program as it is operating now “seems to be making a difference.”

“Chairman Obey is playing politics with the lives of millions of children,” said Mr. Petrilli, who was an Education Department official during President Bush’s first term.

The final report on the Reading First program by IES, expected to be released later this year, may include further analysis of the program’s effectiveness. (“Reading First Doesn’t Help Pupils ‘Get it’,” May 7, 2008.)

Small Increases Elsewhere

The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee released few other details today about the fiscal 2009 spending bill that covers education.

A statement from the committee reported that the bill would provide $15.1 billion in Title I grants for low-income children, a $665 million increase over the fiscal 2008 amount. It was unclear, however, whether that number represented only Title I grants for districts, or if it also included the Title I school improvement grants, which are targeted at schools not making adequate yearly progress and were financed at $491 million in fiscal 2008.

And the bill includes a $604 million increase over fiscal 2008 for grants to help states cover the costs of serving students in special education, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That program received $10.95 billion in fiscal 2008.

The measure would also boost federal after-school programs, which are slated for a $281 million cut under President Bush’s budget request. The bill would instead provide a $50 million increase over fiscal 2008.

Mary L. Kusler, the assistant director of governmental relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., called the proposed increases in Title I and IDEA “a good start.”

Separately, the House of Representatives today was expected to take up an emergency fiscal 2008 spending bill to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nearly $186.9 billion measure includes beefed-up education benefits for veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, at a cost of $62.8 billion over 11 years.

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