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The Herald: Pay for reading program

June 10, 2013 

A bill that would strengthen the state’s emphasis on teaching students to read could have an enormous impact on educational performance. But state lawmakers need to provide the money to pay for the program.

The Read to Succeed Act is sponsored by Sen. Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who represents most of western and northern York County. The bill would require school districts to develop district-wide plans for reading instruction.

The plan’s key mandate – and the one likely to be the most controversial – would be a requirement to hold back third-graders if they are not reading on grade level. Other measures in the bill include requiring every student entering pre-kindergarten or kindergarten to take a readiness screening test.

Any pre-kindergarten through third-grade student having trouble reading grade-level materials would be provided 90 minutes of intensive, in-class supplemental reading intervention each day. Students who still are identified with having significant problems at the end of the school year would go to summer reading camps.

In addition, elementary and early childhood teachers would have to take five supplemental courses in reading education. Middle- and high-school teachers would have to take three of those courses.

Educator groups support the concept of the bill but worry that the state is passing the burden of paying for it to local districts. So far, the only additional funding proposed explicitly for Read to Succeed is $1.5 million the Senate added to its budget proposal for summer reading camps for struggling third-graders.

The Senate also has added $26 million to the budget to expand full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten for districts with at least 75 percent of the population living in poverty.

But the bill’s key supporters envision paying for nearly all of the cost of the initiative from $136 million districts already receive for students at risk of failure. The districts could use their spending flexibility to redirect all or some of that money to reading programs.

But districts already are using that money for at-risk students and other purposes. Some districts have asked to use the money to help pay teacher salaries.

If implemented as planned, Read to Succeed would be expensive. Districts would have to hire reading coaches, provide training for teachers and buy new classroom and library materials.

While we think the plan could potentially boost the quality of education statewide and put a significant dent in the dropout rate, lawmakers have to step up and provide the means to make it work. They can’t simply mandate it and then expect local districts to pay for it out of discretionary money that is designated for other purposes.

The bill’s sponsors used a similar program in Florida as the model for Read to Succeed. But Florida launched its program with a $300 million federal grant spread over six years and continues to commit millions of dollars in state money to sustain it.

South Carolina lawmakers are unlikely to be able to estimate the full cost of Read to Succeed until they hear from local districts about the reading initiatives they want to institute. Until those costs are known, the state shouldn’t be shifting the burden for expensive new programs to the districts.

We need an initiative that will help South Carolina children learn to read proficiently by the third grade, not just another unfunded mandate from the Legislature.

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