Bush Aide Defends Reading Program

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is heading the effort to save the Reading First program, which some lawmakers say has been mismanaged.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is heading the effort to save the Reading First program, which some lawmakers say has been mismanaged. (Photo: Jim Mone/AP)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

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.

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