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Bush Aide Defends Reading Program: States Are Urged to Counteract Cuts

Ohanian Comment: Is this factual journalism or opinion? Wouldn't you like to see the names of the educators who offer "broad support" for Reading First? The program has broad support from educators who say it has improved instruction in schools for children from poor families.

Too bad the reporter didn't talk to a few of the many educators who say the program undermines teacher professionalism and harms children. You don't have to be a Whole Language teacher to hate Reading First.

Too bad the teacher unions won't speak out about the teacher misery over this program.

By Maria Glod

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is sending a message to educators across the country who support a federal program to help young children learn to read: "Fight fiercely."

Late last year, the Democrat-led Congress slashed funding for Reading First more than 60 percent in response to allegations of mismanagement and financial conflicts of interest. Now the Bush administration is making what amounts to an end run around Congress, coaching states on how to find other sources of federal money to preserve what had been a $1 billion-a-year program. The administration calls the program central to the No Child Left Behind law's goal of helping disadvantaged students close the achievement gap.

The funding fight has left the future of Reading First uncertain. The program has broad support from educators who say it has improved instruction in schools for children from poor families. President Bush's fiscal 2009 budget would restore funding. But some congressional Democrats say the department's missteps left the program vulnerable.

"If you're going to tell school districts that the big bad Congress cut this wonderful peachy program, then I think you ought to tell them why," House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) told Spellings at a Feb. 26 hearing. He added, "We've got a right to criticize the mismanagement of programs."

Reading First provides grants to improve lessons in kindergarten through third grade, with an emphasis on basic skills and teaching methods grounded in scientific research. The money benefits 5,200 schools nationwide, about 140 of them in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

A 2006 report from the Education Department's inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., said some program officials steered states to certain tests and textbooks. Congressional testimony last year also revealed that some of those people benefited financially.

Higgins told lawmakers last spring that he had made several referrals to the Justice Department concerning Reading First. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the District, Channing Phillips, said last week that the matter remains "under review."

Reading First has won largely good reviews in many classrooms. The Center on Education Policy, based in the District, reported in October that officials in 37 states said the curriculum and assessments helped boost achievement.

But the program also has been caught up in the long-standing debate over the best way to teach reading. Critics say that Reading First officials have promoted intensive phonics instruction, in which children focus on learning to sound out words, and that schools have been discouraged from using the whole language approach, which emphasizes teaching reading through literature.

In December, Congress cut Reading First funding for the current fiscal year to $393 million, down from $1 billion the year before. In fiscal 2007, Maryland, Virginia and the District received more than $30 million. This year, their funding totals about $11 million. The reduction worries local officials.

"Early childhood support is vital to increase student achievement," said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist. "Funding cuts to Reading First would challenge our ability to strengthen reading instruction."

Mark Allan, director of elementary instruction for the Virginia Department of Education, said Reading First has helped the state fund reading coaches, teacher training and uninterrupted 90-minute daily reading lessons. All of that, he said, has helped boost test scores. "We think it's an excellent program," Allan said.

Despite such expressions of support, some education experts said the program has been tarnished by allegations of mismanagement. They predicted that schools will be able to sustain the program for a short while that but that it is likely to fall apart without an influx of cash.

"Everyone's right," said Andy Rotherham, a co-founder of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector who served in the Clinton administration and now sits on the Virginia Board of Education. "The Bush administration screwed up. The program is proven to be effective. And funds shouldn't have been cut."

Spellings has told lawmakers repeatedly that she has cleaned house. The department has installed new leadership for the program, she said, and accepted recommendations from the inspector general meant to prevent future management troubles.

Not everyone is convinced. "We all agree that the goal of the Reading First program -- to help all children learn to read -- is incredibly important," said Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "We must have every assurance that Reading First funding is being used as intended -- to benefit our nation's schoolchildren, not to line the pockets of Bush's cronies."

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) recently said Bush's proposed "increase for the mismanaged Reading First" would "come at the expense" of other programs.

Republicans are pushing to keep Reading First alive. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) plugged the program in a March 5 speech to the National Urban League. "Instead of funding Reading First last year, Congress funded earmarks -- a classic case of misplaced priorities," Boehner said in prepared remarks.

As Congress debates, the Education Department is counseling states on ways to support Reading First by using money designated for teacher training and services for students in poverty.

Reading First program directors from across the country met at the Hilton hotel at Dupont Circle this month for a conference that included sessions on funding possibilities. "You have seen the benefits of this program, and that's why it is so tragic," Spellings told the directors, urging them to "fight fiercely" to promote Reading First.

Participants were given a worksheet for small group sessions that asked them to brainstorm on "two unique or creative ideas for addressing challenges related to the funding reduction."

"Congress gives states latitude, and we're simply encouraging and reminding them they have that flexibility," said Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant education secretary. "We are going to do whatever we can legally to make sure the program can continue."

Several state officials said they would try to keep the program running. "Reading First has made so much of a difference in the lives of so many people," said James Herman, the program's director in Tennessee. "We're going to punish the children. I don't understand that at all."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

— Maria Glod
Washington Post


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