Comprehensive Literacy Legislation Introduced in Senate
Last week, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, a comprehensive literacy bill designed to overhaul the federal role in supporting literacy from preschool through high school. Companion legislation is being introduced in the House of Representatives by Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.)
This bill addresses the important need to reestablish a federal role in supporting early literacy, following the elimination of funding for the Reading First program. It also takes important steps to support adolescent literacy. But we worry that it shifts the focus of federal literacy efforts too much towards the middle and high school years, at the expense of critical PreK-3rd years, which build a foundation for all of children’s later literacy learning.
The LEARN act authorizes new federal literacy programs to replace both existing federal literacy investments—Even Start, Early Reading First, and Striving Readers—and the Reading First program, which Congress defunded last year. In that respect, it’s much needed. Supporting literacy development has been an important federal education priority, backed up with dollars, through the previous two administrations. The elimination of Reading First funding in fiscal year 2009, following large cuts in 2008, cut off an important source of funds for reading programs in low-income elementary schools, leaving many scrambling to figure out how to continue this important work during tight economic times.
The LEARN act would provide grants to states to develop and implement comprehensive state literacy plans, from early childhood through high school. The act authorizes both one-year planning grants, to support states in developing their literacy plans, and five-year implementation grants. States that receive implementation grants would be required to spend 90 percent of those funds on subgrants to local entities—school districts, early childhood programs and nonprofits. Funds would be awarded on a competitive basis, with priority for grantees serving high numbers of poor children, children who are struggling in reading, and school districts with high numbers of schools identified for school improvement under ESEA. States would have to direct 10 percent of the subgrant funds to early childhood (birth to 5) literacy initiatives, 40 percent to literacy programs in kindergarten through fifth grade, and 40 percent to programs in middle and high school. States could use the remaining 10 percent to conduct statewide activities to support literacy.
While Early Ed Watch is pleased to see legislation promoting a federal role and funding for literacy programs, and there are a number of things we like about this bill, there are also aspects we feel could be improved.
First, what we like: We especially like that the LEARN Act places a strong emphasis on writing as an important component of literacy alongside reading. The ability to write well is increasingly important in our information-based economy, yet too many of our students fail to master that skill. Schools should integrate writing into the curriculum from an early age—even before children can truly “write.” Many of the schools that are most effective at promoting literacy across the PreK-3rd spectrum have adopted this practice.
The bill emphasizes integrating literacy across the content areas and using diverse and varied texts. That we like too.
We also think it’s important that the bill maintains a focus on things that were working well in Reading First—the five essential components of literacy instruction identified by the National Reading Panel (phonological awareness, phonic decoding, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension); the use of appropriate screening, diagnostic, and formative assessments to track students’ reading progress and inform instruction; high-quality professional development; and additional support for struggling students.
And we are particularly pleased with provisions requiring states to conduct an audit of pre-service teacher coursework to ensure that future teachers are getting the training they need to provide effective literacy instruction to children—something all too many teacher training programs still do not do, despite the strong body of evidence that exists on effective reading instruction.
That said, we have some concerns as well. It’s unfortunate that, even as a growing number of school districts and states are building seamless PreK-3rd early literacy experiences for young children, this bill still resorts to the same old silos—separate grants for birth to age five, K-5, and middle/high school literacy initiatives—rather than encouraging PreK-3rd integration. That said, there are a number of simple ways that Congress could strengthen the bill to better support PreK-3rd alignment, and abundant opportunities to do so before this bill becomes law. Even in its current form, states and school districts could use the LEARN Act’s programs and funding to promote Prek-3rd alignment—they’d just have to think a bit creatively about how to do so.
While we recognize the need to invest more in adolescent literacy, we also question the wisdom of devoting the same amount of funding to middle and high school literacy as to elementary schools. The PreK-3rd years are the crucial time when children develop foundational early literacy skills on which all their future learning rests, and it’s far cheaper to provide the support students need to achieve reading proficiency by third grade than it is to provide remediation later. Given the critical importance of those years for reading, we would argue for investing a larger share of the resources in early childhood and elementary literacy efforts.
Of course, how much literacy funding will be available for any grade level depends on how much Congress decides to appropriate for the LEARN Act’s programs. The bill would authorize $2.35 billion in funding annually for literacy. But that doesn’t mean that much money will actually materialize. Authorizations only provide a ceiling on how much Congress can spend for a program. The actual funding levels will be determined each year by the Congressional appropriations committees. And right now the total appropriation for literacy programs in both the House and Senate appropriations bills is an order of magnitude lower than the LEARN Act’s authorization levels--$274 million in the House and $263 million in the Senate. In many ways, the real proof of Congress’ commitment to literacy is not this bill, but how much they spend on it going forward.
Congress, with health care reform and the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act already on its plate, will probably not act on the LEARN Act this year. Rather, the legislation will probably be incorporated into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), which Congress is expected to take up next year. Stay tuned for more in the months ahead.