A plan to make reading a focus in South Carolina public schools will require few new dollars and a lot of rethinking of how existing money is spent, supporters say.
But education groups have raised questions about the price of the sweeping education reform proposal, inspired by Florida, whose trademark policy would be holding back third-graders who score the lowest on a statewide test for a year of reading-intensive instruction aimed at getting them reading on grade level.
Third grade is the year students must become independent readers to “read to learn” and have academic success later.
The proposal, critics note, does not include money for training teachers or reading coaches for schools – two essentials for making that reading instruction worthwhile, they say.
“Everyone who has been successful (with that approach) says you’ve got to train teachers, you’ve got to have reading coaches and after-school programs,” said Molly Spearman, director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, which supports the proposal in concept.
“(Florida) really committed to it financially,” Spearman said. “South Carolina needs to step up to the plate.”
The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who represents most of western and northern York County, calls for summer reading camps for struggling readers. The Senate put $1.5 million for reading camps in the state budget beginning July1.
Democrats also want to expand a state 4-year-old kindergarten program for children living in poverty – another way to prepare students for the third-grade reading test, they say. The Senate also included $26 million for the expansion in next year’s budget.
Details of the bill
Under Peeler’s bill, school districts would develop district-wide plans for reading instruction with help from a new $500,000 state Department of Education office.
But, concerning educator groups, the bill would leave the cost of literacy training to teachers and, without committing money to specific reading initiatives, leave it to districts to decide how to pay for reading programs.
Supporters of that approach say districts can use their spending flexibility to redirect $136 million they already receive for students at risk of school failure.
The problem, as Spearman and others have noted, some districts have requested to use the money for other purposes, such as paying for teacher salaries.
“Flexibility is a nice word to use, but when that flexibility is used to cover teachers’ salaries and benefits,” the money has been used for a necessary purpose, she said.
Florida’s education system – with a more than $18 billion budget and 2.7 million students – benefited from some new education money when it launched its reading program.
The state received a $300 million federal grant spread over six years that provided the state’s lowest-performing, low-income schools with elementary school reading coaches, training for teachers, and classroom and library materials. The grant also paid for a reading research center and other services, according to Laurie Lee with the Just Read, Florida office.
The state also paid for more programs through its reading office, ranging from $8.4 million in its first year to $46 million in 2004. The office provided support for districts, training programs for educators, and literacy programs for parents.
In 2005, Florida created a separate reading line-item in the education budget for districts, Lee said. The commitment has grown to $130 million from $89 million, increasing as state money for the reading office has declined in the recession.
To qualify for the reading money, school districts had to create reading plans that included reaching coaches, professional development for teachers, and summer reading camps.
Funding in S.C.
Jay Ragley, spokesman for S.C. schools chief Mick Zais, who supports the “third-grade promotion gateway,” said South Carolina has at least $136 million that could be redirected to reading initiatives.
Melanie Barton, director of the state Education Oversight Committee, said S.C. lawmakers may need to look at additional money for the reading program, if it becomes law, but the first step is to enact a statewide reading policy, and then work with districts to figure out how best to achieve the policy’s goals through community partnerships and using existing money available for struggling students.