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Brownback administration plans new reading initiative

TANF dollars targeted to school districts with low reading scores

By Dave Ranney | November 13, 2013

Kansas officials are planning to use federal welfare dollars to help underwrite Gov. Sam Brownback’s pledge to improve fourth grade reading scores.

The two-year plan, which is briefly referenced in the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014, would fund $12 million a year on in-school and after-school programs in school districts with low reading scores and high poverty rates.

Much of the money would come from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, which DCF uses to fund the state’s cash assistance, utility assistance, child-care assistance, and Early Head Start programs.

According to the budget document, TANF spending on direct public assistance programs is expected to be down 11 percent mostly due to recent changes in DCF policies and improvements in the economy that have left fewer low-income individuals and families eligible.

Administration officials described the new reading initiative last week at a meeting in Pittsburg with several school superintendents from southeast Kansas, which is one of the poorest areas in the state.

The meeting, which was held Friday, was chaired by Andrew Hysell, a consultant leading the initiative on behalf of the Brownback administration.

Hysell is a former associate vice president of policy and advocacy for Save the Children, an international charity.

About 60 people – a mix of school superintendents, principals, and reading instructors – attended the four-hour meeting.

The proposal has yet to be formally approved by the Governor's Office. The governor's budget recommendations become official after they are submitted to the Legislature in January.

KHI News Service file photo

In this August 2010 file photo, gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback, right, is shown unveiling his Roadmap for Kansas. Goal three on the placard was "Increase the percentage of fourth graders reading at grade level." Brownback is approaching the final year of his first term as governor and is seeking re-election to a second. Pictured left is Jeff Colyer, now lieutenant governor.

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But administration officials said they were scheduling a press conference about the initiative for Thursday at a Boys & Girls Club in Topeka.

When Brownback ran for governor in 2010, one of the pledges in his “Roadmap for Kansas,” was to improve fourth grade reading scores.

Eileen Hawley, press secretary for the governor, declined comment on the initiative, pending the administration’s official announcement of it.

Targeted districts

School superintendents at the meeting said they were told the initiative would pay for four national organizations to start or expand district-level programs designed to improve elementary school reading scores and promote parental involvement. The organizations are: Reading Recovery, Great Schools Partnership, Families and Schools Together, and Save the Children.

“The goal is to have 100 percent of the students reading at grade level by the end of the third grade,” said Pittsburg School Supt. Destry Brown.

School districts were asked to sign up for the program by Nov. 15, he said.

“They’re wanting to target 20 school districts in southeast Kansas and 20 school districts in southwest Kansas,” Brown said.

Those at the meeting were told the program would be run through DCF rather than the Department of Education.

“It’s an odd way of doing things,” Brown said. “I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong. I’m just saying it’s a very different model than what we’re used to and this is a substantial amount of money we’re talking about.”

A DCF official said the plan was being revised to include a component for urban schools. That portion is expected to account for about $3 million of the $12 million being earmarked for the initiative, though officials cautioned that those details were not yet finalized.

School districts that agree to take part would be required to cooperate with all four programs and generate data for evaluation by the Center for Public Partnerships and Research at the University of Kansas, he said.

Fort Scott School Supt. Diane Gross said the plan could allow elementary schools in her district to expand programs known to be successful but which have been limited by “budget constrictions.”

Fort Scott School Supt. Diane Gross

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But Gross said she had “huge concerns” about the plan after hearing that participating school districts likely would be required to hire additional teachers whose schedules would be set by the Reading Recovery program, which focuses on first graders that have difficulty learning to read.

“It’s a wonderful program, and it shows immediate results,” she said of Reading Recovery. “But you have to devote one teacher for every eight students in the program and for us that could mean we’d have to hire two to four new teachers. It would be very expensive for us.”

Other superintendents, Gross said, expressed similar concerns, prompting Hysell to say he would try to broker a solution with the Governor’s Office.

In Kansas, the Reading Recovery program is housed at Emporia State University.

'Many questions'

“I think it’s fair to say that most people left the meeting with as many questions as they had coming in,” Gross said. “There wasn’t a real clear understanding of what our responsibilities were going to be and what we’d be looking at in terms of bottom-line amounts. But it’s also fair to say there are some promising ideas being put forth that could greatly benefit kids.”

Expecting school districts to commit to the initiative within a week’s time was unrealistic, she said.

“They were saying they want to get this going by the middle of January,” Gross said. “That’s a lot to have up and running in so short of a time.”

Some of the school superintendents in the room, she said, were bothered by the idea of using public-assistance funds to pay for literacy programs instead of more direct aid to poor families.

“That was a ‘big rub,’” Gross said. “We have a lot of needy families in this part of the country.”

Brown said he shared some of that concern but thought the Pittsburg school district would sign up for the initiative.

“Everybody wants this to be a great thing,” he said. “But there are people who are wondering how long the money is going to be there and what happens if the governor doesn’t get re-elected.”

For now, Brown said, the region’s school officials seemed “cautiously optimistic” about the plan.

Pregnancy prevention

Theresa Freed, spokesperson for DCF, said the initiative would meet one of the goals of TANF by reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

“Studies show that girls with less-than-average reading skills are more than twice as likely to become teen mothers, compared to their peers with average reading skills,” she said in an email to KHI News Service.

She said the TANF dollars would only be used to fund the after-school portion of the reading programs.

Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said she thought the initiative was ill conceived.

"We are deeply troubled by the idea of using millions of dollars in TANF money to pay for literacy work,” she said. “These are dollars that are meant to help the lowest-income families in the state.”

It is “counter-intuitive,” she said, to think that children whose “basic needs – food, shelter, utilities – aren’t being met” due to recent restrictions in TANF eligibility would come to school ready to learn.

Cotsoradis said literacy work was important, “but it doesn’t make sense to shift dollars away from meeting the basic needs of families to a focus on literacy later in a child’s life.”

She said the money would be better spent on children ages 0 to 5.

"We know that what happens in the first five years has the greatest impact in a child being able to read," Cotsoradis said.

The two-year, $24 million initiative would be in addition to the $6 million a year for the next two years that lawmakers already have agreed to spend on a computer software program designed to help elementary school students learn to read.

The initiative also is separate from early childhood development programs funded by the state’s tobacco master settlement agreement.

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