Funds for 'Reading First' Program in Peril

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Congress wants to slash funding for "Reading First," in part because the program has been attacked for conflicts of interests. But teachers love the program, and say it's one of the most effective parts of No Child Left Behind.


A federal program known as Reading First has been under attack for the past year. Numerous investigations have shown the program is full of conflicts of interest, and, in fact, these probes might even lead to criminal charges. That, in turn, has led Congress to slice the program's budget. And yet many educators say Reading First works.

They are trying to save the program, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Superintendents around the country love to gush about the Reading First program.

Ms. NANCY GRASMICK (State Superintendent, Maryland Department of Education): The results are stunning.

ABRAMSON: Nancy Grasmick is superintendent of education in Maryland. I spoke with her at a local school about the impact of the program on reading in her state.

Ms. GRASMICK: We have learned from it. We have accelerated the performance of our students and the performance of our teachers. And we have all the data to support that.

ABRAMSON: And what's not to like about a program that provides over a billion dollars a year for intensive reading instruction? Plenty, according to Congressman David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin; Chairman, House Appropriations Committee): The program is being manipulated and ripped off by the people who are running the program.

ABRAMSON: Obey wants to cut more than 60 percent of the Reading First budget for 2008. That's because numerous investigations have shown Reading First overseers steered states and school districts toward certain reading programs, those with financial ties to Reading First administrators. That's a violation of Reading First guidelines and may even be a crime. The charges have been referred to the Justice Department.

Congressman Obey says malfeasance must have consequences.

Rep. OBEY: Why should a school district be penalized if they want to use a program which is regarded as being among the most effective in the country simply because it suits the interest of the contractors running the program?

ABRAMSON: The Department of Education says Reading First has been completely reformed over the past year and it's now a clean machine.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Amanda Farris says the department has made it abundantly clear to states that they can choose any reading materials that are considered scientifically proven to work.

Ms. AMANDA FARRIS (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of Education): We do not select curriculum in any way. We have reiterated that. Our program director for Reading First sent states an e-mail back in April. So frankly I just don't think that we can be more clear about that.

ABRAMSON: But some reading specialists say nothing has changed. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University says school districts are still afraid to use his Success For All reading program. They still worry their applications for Reading First money will be denied unless they use a narrow list of approved materials.

Mr. ROBERT SLAVIN (Creator, Success For All): With the current Education Department, I think that they have shown no intention whatever to try to fix the program, and I don't think Congress can force them to do it in any way other than cutting the funding.

ABRAMSON: Slavin has been leading the charge against Reading First since problems were first uncovered last year. Amanda Farris of the Education Department says this may be a case of sour grapes from people whose materials just aren't selling as well as they'd hoped.

Ms. FARRIS: They expected to get a real spike in their program usage, and that just hasn't happened. For what reason, I can't speculate.

ABRAMSON: Some Reading First detractors hope Congress will authorize a new program to replace Reading First, but that would require new legislation. In the interim, many feel that children may end up paying for adult shenanigans at Reading First.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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