When President Barack Obama recognized the groundswell of support being received by the Common Core standards for K-12 public schools, he decided to add a carrot for even more involvement. The Race to the Top program would reward states working to foster innovation as they created better learners and teachers.
The backlash on what many saw as bribes to force some sort of socialist takeover of local schools by the federal government resulted in repeated attempts to dismantle Common Core. Most of those attempts were foiled, but the battle is ongoing. We would expect further attempts in Topeka during the next legislative session, even though Kansas educators and administrators have had significant roles shaping the standards and already are in the process of implementation.
We also would expect the same lawmakers fighting Common Core will embrace Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's "Reading Roadmap" initiative unveiled last week. The governor intends to make good on one of his campaign pledges, to improve fourth-grade reading scores, by offering millions of dollars to select districts willing to follow the direction of literacy organizations Brownback selected.
"We know that there is no one-size-fits-all program for Kansas students when it comes to learning how to read," Brownback said in a press release announcing the effort. "By effectively targeting our resources to help at-risk youth with a variety of support and services, we will move Kansas students to the top of the list of proficient readers in the U.S. and break the cycle of child poverty."
Thus far, we have heard nobody call the Reading Roadmap funding some sort of bribe or the program itself some sort of state takeover of local classrooms. Most rational minds wouldn't make such a linkage. It would be as ridiculous to suggest Brownback was orchestrating something of that nature as it was to suggest Obama was.
Yet there are some aspects of the Reading Roadmap we find more than a bit curious. And troubling.
The first is the funding source. What the governor calls a path to help break the cycle of poverty will be paid for primarily with federal welfare dollars. While $6 million of the two-year, $24 million project does not have a funding source identified, the $18 million balance is being shifted away from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF dollars traditionally go to low-income residents to help pay for food, shelter and utilities.
Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, 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."
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said because teenage girls who can read are less likely to become unwed mothers, it fits one of the goals of TANF.
Gilmore also said the $18 million will be drawn out of a $48 million reserve, so current benefits will not be affected. Given the Brownback administration's move to reduce current benefits -- already set to decrease 11 percent next year because of policy changes -- having a reserve might be less and less important moving forward. Poverty continues to increase, but punitive restrictions are having a direct effect on dollars being spent.
Having the Department for Children and Families in charge of an educational program in the schools also is troubling for us. State Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said she doesn't have a problem with it, but we would anticipate an accountability issue at some point. Districts that accept the funding will be bound to requirements imposed by the private agencies involved: Rural School and Community Trust, Families and Schools Together, and Save the Children. Fort Scott Superintendent Diane Gross expressed concern the program likely would require districts to hire additional teachers.
Which truly would be ironic as tax dollars for classroom instruction have gone down during Brownback's tenure.
At best, the Reading Roadmap initiative makes more sense than Brownback's first attempt to improve fourth-grade reading scores by flunking every third-grader who wasn't performing at grade level. At worst, however, it could further degrade poverty-stricken families by diverting the TANF dollars. Hungry children are more difficult to teach any subject, even if it is a successful reading program.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry