The Good, the Bad and the Missing: President Bush's Proposals for Improving Education for Disadvantaged Students

Early Reading and Pre-School Programs

President Bush’s plan creates initiatives targeted specifically at reading for disadvantaged students, entitled “Reading First” and “Early Reading First.” We welcome the President’s emphasis on reading and literacy, and his stress on getting every student reading by the third grade is commendable. His program to improve reading skills in the early grades resembles the goal in existing national law that all third-graders be able to read, as embodied in the 1996 Reading Excellence Act.34 Recently, he has reiterated his campaign promise to spend nearly $1 billion per year on this reading initiative.35 We question whether this level of funding would be sufficient, and whether the President’s plan would ensure that the money reaches the schools and students who need it most. While the Bush plan – as described in more detail during the campaign – states that the program is to help “disadvantaged children learn to read,” it is not specific as to how it would be targeted. Since the funds will be given to states and local districts with “freedom and flexibility” to decide how to use the funds, there is no clearly stated requirement and thus no assurance that these resources will be targeted to the highpoverty schools and the children who need them most.36 In fact, Bush’s call for “freedom and flexibility” in how the states utilize the reading funds echoes congressional Republicans’ consistent push to convert education programs, including Title I, into block grants, thereby effectively de-targeting funds originally intended for the neediest students in high-poverty schools. Title I is specifically intended to benefit disadvantaged students and high-poverty schools, and is currently funded at just one-third of its basic authorization level.37 Since improving the reading skills of poor students in the early elementary grades is one of the primary goals of Title I, there is a strong argument that, rather than starting a new reading program, as the President proposes, Congress should instead fully fund Title I for the first time in the program’s history. This would ensure that the resources reach the students and schools who need them most.38

The President’s plan repeatedly refers to an emphasis or even a requirement that programs and interventions be “research-based.” Using research and the scientific accumulation of knowledge to advance our ability to educate all students well is of course commendable. Yet it is indicated in the language of “No Child Left Behind” that the President’s “Reading First” initiative will be a phonics-only program, leaving the reader with the understanding that states’ adherence to just this one method of teaching reading will be a prerequisite to receiving federal funding for assistance in reading. The assertion in the President’s proposals that the teaching of reading should rely solely on phonics, and that phonics instruction is the only scientifically valid method of teaching reading is, at best, misleading. There is an emerging consensus that a good reading program includes not one but a variety of approaches.39 Not only would this phonics mandate be an unwarranted violation of local control and decision-making authority, it would also harm the welfare of the children who are the intended beneficiaries.

We commend the President’s announced support for Head Start, a highly successful program that has benefited many students coming from families in poverty. And his proposed “Early Reading First” to supplement Head Start efforts to promote reading readiness are promising, though details of the program are still forthcoming.40 Yet, neither during the campaign nor in the current plan does the President propose the kind of funding increase that would be necessary to extend the reach of Head Start to all who are eligible. And he has not broached the subject of expanding Early Head Start programs which currently reach only 2% of eligible children under 2 years of age, and less than half of eligible 4-year olds.41 Yet this kind of effort would be required if we are truly to leave no child behind. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Head Start funding must be raised from the current $5.3 billion to approximately $12 billion in order to provide services to all eligible 3- and 4-year olds.42 If the President omits support for meaningful increases in these vitally important programs, then it will be impossible to make significant progress towards his stated goal.

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