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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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States to Compete for 'Striving Readers' Grants Next Spring

Published:  November 30, 2010

In the coming months, states will get a chance to compete in a $178-million competition to develop programs that support literacy development from birth through 12th grade. The vast reach of the program – spanning the entirety of childhood and adolescence – marks a new moment for the U.S. Department of Education, which has typically carved up literacy programs by grade or age group.

“This is very different for us,” said Deborah Spitz, leader of the Early Childhood and Reading Group in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, which held a public input meeting about the grants on Nov. 19. 

The department held the Nov. 19 meeting to gather ideas for how to develop guidelines for the competition, called Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy. The competition will be conducted next spring, with awards made by next August. The department expects to issue a “notice inviting applications” in January or February.

States could win awards worth up to $30 million, according to slides presented at the meeting (which we'll link to here when they are available). They will be expected to distribute the money via subgrants to local school districts or, in the case of early literacy, school districts or non-profit providers of early education that partner with an organization or agency “with a demonstrated record of effectiveness” in early literacy development.

According to the department's presentation, states can spend as much as five percent of the award on “state leadership activities.”  The rest of the funds must be distributed according to this breakdown:

  • 15 percent for birth to pre-k;
  • 40 percent for K-5; and
  • 40 percent for grades 6-12, with equitable distribution between middle and high school.

Several people commented at the meeting that the dividing line between pre-k and K-5 could be problematic – a point we agree with. “I’m concerned about the 15 percent cap,” said Jennifer Weber, manager of policy for Nemours Office of Child Health Policy and Advocacy. “Let’s not instill additional silos into the program.”

Congress approved funding for the new program in the budget for fiscal year 2010.  Originally, the program was designed to distribute $250 million, but the “edujobs” bill in August, which provided additional funding to states to avoid teacher layoffs, ate up $50 million of that sum. Of the remaining $200 million, small percentages are dedicated to set-asides and $10 million has already been dedicated to states according to a set formula.

The deadline has already passed for states to receive the formula grants, which are designed to support a nine-member state literacy team. Of the states that applied, each will receive at least $150,000. Drafts of their literacy plans are due on February 1, 2011. (Four states did not apply, according to Miriam Lund, an education specialist in the department. They are Hawaii, Maryland, Delaware and South Dakota.)

The remaining amount – roughly $178 million – will be distributed via the competitive grants.

The funding is surely welcome, but the new Striving Readers program does not entirely fill the hole left by the discontinuation of the Early Reading First and Reading First programs. In fact, literacy funding for pre-k and elementary school programs has slipped significantly over the past several years. As Early Ed Watch noted late last year, the entirety of the Striving Readers appropriation is only a quarter of what was spent on Reading First four years ago. And if you take into account the rescission of $50 million in August, it’s even less.

Reaching back even further in time, the 2010 funding level is also less than the Reading Excellence program of 2001-02, which focused on the early grades. (For more, see our post early this year on the Education Department’s request for 2011 literacy funding.) In other words, not only is the pie now smaller than it was almost a decade ago, it’s being shared across a larger swath of age groups.

Given that the early years are when children build the foundations for strong reading skills, and given the research base on early literacy that continues to grow, it seems counterintuitive to be spending less on young children’s literacy these days. That’s why it will be important for the department to, at the very least, design the program to leverage literacy programs that already have a track record of helping young children and that can strengthen the connections between pre-kindergarten programs and those in the early grades of elementary school. We’ll be watching closely, and when the application guidelines are up, we’ll let you know.

(For more, see the Department’s slides on the formula grant program. Additional information from the public input meeting is expected to be posted on the Striving Readers page soon.)

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