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Why public school kids still can’t read

Why public school kids still can’t read

by
Anna Miller
September 2, 2022
Anna Miller
Author Image
September 2, 2022

For decades, government officials have spent millions of tax dollars on literacy programs, but too many kids still can’t read at grade level. 

Only 37% of fourth grade students test at or above the “proficient” level in reading, according to the Nation's Report Card. Another 57% of high school students fail to meet the reading benchmark on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test.

Teaching kids to read is something we expect of schools. Yet for decades, government officials insist that the public school system needs expensive literacy programs, adding increased seat time for students through full-day kindergarten, or time with a reading coach and teacher professional development. Even though they’ve obtained many of the things they’ve advocated, literacy rates remain dismal.

Since 1998, the many-layered government bureaucracy has administered various literacy programs in Idaho public schools. The programs began when former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne requested more than $5 million for the Idaho Reading Initiative in 1999. His goal was to have 90% of students reading at grade level by the third grade. 

Three years later, student proficiency in reading had dropped. After 10 years of public school literacy programs, the reading performance of most students remained stagnant and below proficient.

Gov. Brad Little also decided to carry the literacy baton after he entered office. For Fiscal Year 2017, Little recommended $10.7 million, and the Legislature appropriated $9.1 million, ongoing for literacy proficiency. In addition, lawmakers designated $2.15 million K‐3 reading intervention activities. 

These literacy funds went to government initiatives like full-day kindergarten and interventions, or more tutoring, for struggling students. It’s unclear why bureaucrats think programs like a lack of full-day kindergarten” rather than the content of the existing public school system, is the reason some students fall behind. If existing seat time is not producing high-quality academic results, how could more hours in those same classrooms lead to greater academic achievement? 

Research shows that academic gains from full-day kindergarten are negligible and disappear.

After the government’s $11 million literacy spending spree in 2017, reading scores for Idaho’s  fourth grade students remained where they were a decade earlier. 

And yet the thinking persists: Maybe throwing even more money at these literacy programs will help!

For Fiscal Year 2018, the Legislature appropriated $100,000 in ongoing General Fund spending for the first year of a five‐year spending plan that required between $450,000 and $500,000 each year to redesign the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI) assessment for K‐3 students. 

The next year, Little came back with a second phase of the literacy plans. He recommended $6.5 million, and the Legislature appropriated $1.74 million to provide intervention for K-3 students who score “basic” on the IRI. 

Surely, this time, students would be reading at grade level when they complete third grade. 

By 2019, however, the new government IRI test showed that 30.3% of students could not read at grade level. These results contradicted the more rigorous evaluation of the Nation's Report Card, which continued to demonstrate that most students were not proficient in reading. In fact, eighth grade students who must have gone through these literacy programs did four points worse and remained well below proficient in reading. 

Don’t quit while you’re ahead, Gov. Little. 

For Fiscal Year 2020, Gov. Little recommended $13.1 million, and the Legislature appropriated $10 million ongoing from the General Fund. It also approved $3.15 million in one-time funding from the Opportunity Scholarship Program Account for K-3 literacy programs. 

Enter the COVID pandemic. The teachers unions kept schools closed, and the government waived testing requirements. But that didn’t stop it from spending even more on literacy programs. Gov. Little recommended and the Legislature appropriated $3.2 million, marking what he called a “historic” increase in ongoing literacy spending. 

Blame COVID, teachers unions, or government literacy programs, but 2021 test scores revealed that 49% of K-3 students could not read at grade level.

It must be because we aren’t spending enough on literacy programs. In 2021, Gov. Little recommended and the Legislature appropriated $20 million to literacy for mitigating what officials called “disruptions associated with COVID-19.” 

This year, the IRI revealed that just 31.8% of K-3 students could not read at grade level. After a $36 million increase in literacy spending, students are scoring 1.5% worse on the IRI than in 2019. 

These lackluster results certainly warrant more spending on literacy, don’t they? 

For Fiscal Year 2023, the Legislature appropriated $47 million ongoing in literacy programs for public schools to offer more full-day kindergarten and reading coaches. This spending increased state literacy spending by five-fold over the last three years.

After spending millions of dollars on literacy programs over the last 22 years, Idaho still has not achieved Gov. Kempthorne’s original goal of 90% of students reading at grade level by the third grade. Quite the opposite has occurred. Today we are experiencing declining literacy rates while having children spend more time in school than ever before — and at greater taxpayer expense. 

Legislators could enact a policy to change the incentives of public schools by allowing money to follow the child. Studies show that students who attend public schools that face higher levels of market competition tend to have better reading scores. 

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Idaho children are languishing in schools that apparently don’t know how to teach the most basic of all academic skills: reading. 

Perhaps we should just increase literacy spending again. 

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