Declaring that Ohio has no education need more urgent than teaching children to read, Gov. Bob Taft has proposed recruiting a citizen army of 20,000 volunteer tutors and spending $25 million to improve literacy in the early grades.
The bill, introduced recently in the Ohio House with bipartisan support and the backing of 69 co-sponsors, is geared toward helping students prepare for a high-stakes state reading assessment still three years away. Under state law, districts will not be allowed to promote students to the 5th grade if they fail the state’s 4th grade reading assessment starting in the 2001-02 school year.
Last year, only 48 percent of 4th graders passed the state exam.
“Ensuring that Ohio’s fourth graders can read is my highest priority as governor,” Mr. Taft, 57, who last November became the latest member of his prominent Republican family to be elected to public office, told members of the House education committee last week. “No single effort will solve all our education issues, but we must begin in the early grades. There is no more fundamental place to start than with reading.”
While many states have emphasized building students’ literacy skills in recent years, Ohio’s proposed programs would go further than most such initiatives.
Under the current proposal, the OhioReads initiative would provide $20 million in state aid for classroom-based initiatives in schools with high rates of reading failure. The remaining $5 million would be used as grants for community reading programs outside of schools.
But Gov. Taft--in an echo of President Clinton’s America Reads initiative--calls volunteer recruitment the centerpiece of the plan. He recently began tutoring a student in a Columbus elementary school by way of example.
Officials working for both state and national literacy programs say the governor faces several challenges in fulfilling his pledge to recruit thousands of volunteer tutors. They contend that to be effective in helping children learn to read, volunteers need to receive training on how to go beyond simply reading aloud to students.
Recruiting, training, and coordinating volunteers “requires a lot of time, energy, and structure,” said Richard Long, the Washington representative for the International Reading Association, a professional group of reading teachers based in Newark, Del. “And that’s not free.”
Reading experts raised similar concerns in 1997 when Mr. Clinton unveiled his $2.75 billion initiative, which called for 1 million volunteers and 30,000 reading specialists. Congress ultimately failed to adopt the plan in the form the president proposed, though the U.S. Department of Education maintains a scaled-down version of the tutoring program using AmeriCorps volunteers and college students receiving federal work-study aid. (“Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned,” Feb. 26, 1997.)
While the current OhioReads proposal does not specifically address training issues, Mr. Taft is working on a provision that would make training for volunteers mandatory, said Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the governor.
When he touted his OhioReads proposal on the campaign trail last fall, Mr. Taft called for 10,000 volunteers to tutor Ohio schoolchildren. He pledged during his inaugural address last month to double that number. But he has acknowledged critics’ arguments that mobilizing and training 20,000 volunteer tutors could be an overambitious goal.
“A lot of this is still fluid,” Mr. Milburn said. “We want to tap Ohioans from every walk of life because everyone benefits.”
Part of the governor’s plan hinges on getting businesses to commit to enabling time-pressed employees to attend training sessions or tutor students during the workday.
The Limited Inc., a Columbus-based retailer, stepped forward with final plans for the first such partnership last week: It pledged that 400 employees would tutor 200 kindergartners at three nearby elementary schools. The company said it had set aside $250,000 to pay for training, transportation, and other costs.
“We’re trying to set an example that other companies might follow,” said Al Dietzel, the company’s vice president of public affairs. “When you look at the scope of the problem, this is just the beginning.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Ohio Governor Proposes Volunteer-Based Reading Plan