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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)

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.

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