Politics & Government

Bill would boost money for literacy programs

WASHINGTON — There are zero-book children, 1,000-book children, the summer slide, Early Readers, Reading First, Striving Readers and programs, methods and studies with names and acronyms that won't quit. It's all part of the effort to teach the nation's children to read.

With state and local funding for education being squeezed, however, school administrators and classroom teachers are hoping that a bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would provide nearly $12 billion for literacy programs over five years will inject some much-needed cash into what most consider the cornerstone of learning.

"The need for federal funds is critical," said Patti Banks, the superintendent of the University Place School District outside Tacoma, Wash.

Murray's legislation also would overhaul a federal literacy effort that was rocked by allegations of mismanagement, favoritism and conflicts of interest involving officials at the Department of Education during the Bush administration. The department's inspector general issued a scathing report in 2006 that concluded that those who were running the literacy programs failed to maintain "management integrity and accountability."

Roughly one in seven adults in the United States can't read newspapers, gas bills or this sentence, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy released earlier this year.

About 40 percent of students have trouble learning to read. Some are immigrants and can barely speak English. Some have dyslexia or other reading disabilities. Some have rough home lives. Others, new research shows, simply have trouble learning long vowels.

Murray's bill addresses a growing concern among literacy educators. While most of the attention has focused on the early years of elementary school — kindergarten through third grade — middle schoolers and high school students are of increasing concern. Educators often see a slip in reading test scores among middle school students whose earlier literacy problems were thought to be solved. There aren't as many teachers and as much one-on-one instruction available for older students.

"I think it's the critical silent issue in education," Murray said. "Where we have not focused are in the upper grades."

Ten percent of the funding in Murray's bill would be aimed at programs for children from birth to age 5, 40 percent for students in kindergarten to fifth grade and 40 percent for students in grades six through 12. The other 10 percent would be discretionary.

The funding would be directed at school districts and the states, and could provide for more literacy coaches, expanded staff training and the creation of state literacy plans.

Though the bill was introduced as a freestanding measure in the Senate and the House of Representatives, Murray expects that her measure will be folded into the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law early next year.


U.S. Department of Education

Sen. Patty Murray


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