Third-grade reading guarantee: Is money the answer?

As local school districts prepare to implement the state’s new third-grade reading guarantee, many are bemoaning the increased costs associated with providing more reading assessments and interventions to struggling K-3 readers (as required by law) and retaining more kids. The Ohio School Boards Association called the new law, and specifically its reporting requirements, “an unfunded mandate.”

The legislature did dedicate $13 million in competitive funding to support the new mandate, and last week the State Board of Education mulled recommending $105 million to support the law in the Ohio Department of Education’s FY2014-15 budget request. But would more money make a difference? Let’s take a look at the relationship between funding and reading achievement in the past.

Ohio had a reading guarantee on the books more than a decade ago (it was watered down before taking effect). At that time, with a governor (Taft) who had taken on improving early literacy skills as a primary policy objective and with the state coffers flush, Ohio poured millions into literacy improvement programs and professional development for teachers (via programs like OhioReads, the State Institutes for Reading Instruction, adolescent literacy grants, and summer intervention programs – to say nothing of federally funded efforts like Reading First). Chart 1 shows state funding for literacy improvement initiatives and reading professional development, from FY2000-01 (Governor Taft’s first budget) to FY2012.

Chart 1: Dedicated state spending on literacy improvement initiatives and professional development (FY2000 to FY2012)

Source: Legislative Services Commission, Budget in Detail and Budget Final Fiscal Analysis, FY2000-01 to FY2012-13, accessed 9/19/12; includes line items GRF 200- 433, 445, 450, 513, 551, and 566 (minus unrelated set-asides).

At the peak in 2003, Ohio was spending more than $90 million dollars to support young readers in the schools. Governor Taft’s pet initiative, OhioReads, was sending more than $30 million directly to schools to support early reading efforts and had more than 50,000 community members statewide volunteering in some 1,600 schools as reading tutors. And student achievement was on the rise – the statewide passage rate on the fourth-grade reading test had increased 10 percentage points in four years, to 66.3 percent. Chart 2 shows the statewide proficiency rate on the fourth-grade reading test from the 1999-2000 school year to 2010-2011.

Chart 2. Statewide fourth-grade reading proficiency rate, 1999-2000 to 2010-11

Source: Ohio Department of Education interactive Local Report Card, accessed 9/19/12

The gains were impressive in the early years after the state focused in on helping students learn to read: After five years, the state’s pass rate had increased 20 percentage points. Then progress stalled and the pass rate inched up just seven more points over the next six years. Funding dropped big-time after 2003 (at the hands of both Republican and Democratic governors) and eventually zeroed out in 2011. Did that drop stall students’ reading achievement gains?

Perhaps. However, much of what the state funded in the early 2000s didn’t “disappear” with the dollars. Teachers could still use what they learned during professional development. Books, computer programs, and other student-reading supports were still in the schools. And community volunteer tutoring programs continued without state funding in many schools until recent years.

I’m not sure I believe that the state should invest much more money toward the guarantee. Teaching kids to read is one of the most fundamental jobs of our public schools, a primary reason why they exist. And though this law is new, the state made the importance of teaching reading clear more than twelve years ago.

Yet, the data here seem to indicate that an infusion of well-targeted money early on could spur a boost in achievement. If state leaders do opt to fund the reading guarantee, they should do so in the short-term – give districts money to ramp up their K-3 reading improvement efforts but make it known that the money is going away in X number of years.

And, as an editorial in the Columbus Dispatch points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean infusing “new” money into the system:

 … a major infusion of new cash might not be needed. Florida, which has seen academic performance rise steadily since introducing its third-grade guarantee in 2003, paid for much of the new intervention services with funds that were diverted from other education programs.

Ohio lawmakers should consider such re-prioritizing when a new budget is hashed out next spring. They also should learn from this first year of the program, in which schools will get a better idea of what they need to carry out the guarantee. The legislature should tweak the law as schools learn more about implementing it.

Schools have no lack of high-priority needs, but few are as important as ensuring that children can read proficiently. Research shows that students who begin fourth grade with sub-par reading skills are more likely to fail in later grades and eventually drop out. That’s a lot more destructive to a student’s future than repeating the third grade.

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