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Reading First program could be on its last legs

Ohanian Comment: Here's obituary for Reading First. Notice Joanne Yatvin'sher prescient prediction, "Bad things will happen." Joanne stood tall, writing a mnority report against powerful pressures.

By Greg Toppo

WASHINGTON ΓΆ€” Is the federal government getting out of the reading business?

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to eliminate funding for Reading First, the groundbreaking but controversial Bush administration program that has given states $1 billion a year since 2002 to teach low-income elementary schoolers to read. A House committee also had voted to eliminate funding; if money is not restored before the federal budget is approved in the fall, the program could end.

Democrats in Congress say the program was an unproven magnet for corruption. House hearings last year focused on financial ties between its top advisers and major textbook publishers, who account for a large share of materials schools use. A U.S. Justice Department investigation, begun last year, is still pending.

But many educators say the money ΓΆ€” about $17.7 million per state in 2007 ΓΆ€” was a godsend, allowing them to train teachers in scientifically based reading methods, buy quality supplies and help an estimated 1.8 million children learn to read.

"It has been really good for many of our teachers, many of our schools and many of our children," says Michele Goady, Maryland's Reading First director.

A key part of President Bush's No Child Left Behind education plan, Reading First was controversial even before its birth in 2002. It grew out of an unusual pact between policymakers and brain researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

In 2000, a congressionally appointed panel pared down reading instruction to five key elements ΓΆ€” but its report omitted several, such as the effects of reading aloud to children, primarily because it ran out of time. In protest, one member, Joanne Yatvin, wrote a withering minority report and called the findings "unbalanced and, to some extent, irrelevant" because they would lead educators to assume that many topics not covered are "failed practices."

As a result, she predicted, "bad things will happen."

Most of the bad things that befell Reading First erupted over squabbles about how the Education Department handed out money. By 2005, several publishers snubbed by the program complained top federal advisers were strong-arming states to use specific textbooks and tests, in a few cases insisting on materials the advisers had developed.

"You put enough money on anything, and you've got enough people who are not interested in kids and not interested in education that are making choices," says Cindy Cupp, a Savannah, Ga., teacher and author. She filed two complaints with the Justice Department after learning that six Georgia schools were funded only after they agreed to drop Cupp's phonics books.

The Education Department's inspector general launched an investigation and told a House committee last year that he had made several referrals to the Justice Department.

Early reviews of Reading First were generally positive. But a large study last May by the Institute of Education Sciences found Reading First schools had about the same test results as others. Supporters said that was because Reading First's influence has led districts to adopt its materials in other schools.

Through it all, Reading First has been popular locally. While it relied on a few textbook-based programs, not many teachers could argue with the millions of dollars it has brought in each year. "There's just this huge disconnect between what the people in the field think about this program and what the leaders in Congress think," says Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He says Democrats saw a chance to attack Bush before the 2008 election.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings reacted angrily Tuesday to the "outrageous" cuts and called them "political theater."

Under President Clinton, she notes, Congress put more than $300 million a year into reading.

"Now we're going to turn back the clock, not only to pre-Bush but pre-Clinton (levels)," she says. "I bet it's been a long damned time since the federal government spent no money ΓΆ€” zero ΓΆ€” on reading."

She predicts that after the election, lawmakers will come to their senses. "I hope cooler heads will prevail," she says. "If I had a nickel for every person who said, 'Thank God for Reading First,' I'd be a millionaire."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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