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Needy Districts Face Cuts In School Reading Programs

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER | Courant Staff Writer

May 07, 2008

The state's neediest school districts are facing cuts in critical programs that help teach children to read because of a looming $20 million falloff in funding under the state's "do-nothing" budget.

The Early Reading Success grants, which for the past decade have paid for reading coaches and extra positions to keep class sizes down, were included in planned state spending for 2007-08 but not for 2008-09 when the legislature approved a two-year budget plan last year.

Earlier this year, legislators told school officials not to worry. They said the grants shouldn't have been eliminated and planned to restore the money $19.7 million when they passed an amended budget this year, as they typically do.

But with dire financial projections and the state poised to adopt a 2008-09 budget with no new spending, school districts are facing major cuts in programs that officials say are key to teaching children to read.

"I understand the fiscal constraints the state has, but I frankly can't understand how the rug could be pulled out from under priority school districts in such a critical area," said Bristol Superintendent of Schools Philip A. Streifer, whose district could lose $581,196.

That could mean cutting the district's six literacy specialists, whom Streifer credits with improving reading scores and helping schools meet their requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo, whose district stands to lose $2.5 million the funding behind 19 literacy coaches, 10 paraprofessionals and money for teachers to improve the curriculum called the cuts devastating for children.

"We know if they're not reading at an early age, they'll never get to more sophisticated reading," he said.

Mayo described the cuts as particularly frustrating because New Haven was beginning to see gains in reading scores at a time when state leaders were expressing concern about stagnating or falling reading scores statewide.

"Why would you cut that?" he asked.

Other districts facing cuts include Hartford and Bridgeport, each of which stands to lose more than $3 million in Early Reading Success money, while New Britain could lose $1.2 million. Waterbury faces a $2.6 million cut, and East Hartford could lose just under $700,000.

State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, told school officials during a hearing in February that he was surprised the grants were not in the budget, but that he expected them to be restored.

"I'm sensing a very strong consensus in this building that it was a mistake and that those dollars ought to be restored," he said at the time.

But Tuesday, Fleischmann said it is unlikely new money would be added to the budget. Both his own party's leadership and Gov. M. Jodi Rell have agreed to stick with the 2008-09 budget plan approved last year and avoid any new spending.

Fleischmann said whoever cut the money out of the spending plan probably assumed it would be restored during mid-term adjustments.

It was not clear Tuesday exactly when the grants were eliminated during last year's budget negotiations.

Chris Cooper, Rell's spokesman, said that the governor originally included Early Reading Success money in the budget last year, but that legislators took it out. Rell would not oppose restoring the funding this year, Cooper said, but only if it is offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.

"That's an agreement that all the leaders agreed to," he said. "In the discussions about money for nonprofits, more money for municipalities and all of these worthy groups that need money, the governor said we can talk about any of those things as long as we find corresponding cuts to fund them. And [legislators] were not forthcoming with those cuts."

The state Department of Education has been distributing Early Reading Success money to needy school districts since 1998, part of an effort to improve reading for children between kindergarten and third grade.

Early-childhood education and reading have been major areas of focus among state education officials in recent years. Rell made early-childhood education a major part of her agenda during the last legislative session. State education officials, meanwhile, held a brainstorming summit last fall on ways to improve reading.

Some school officials said the reading program cuts could jeopardize performance as state and federal officials are demanding greater accountability.

"This is direct support to children. It is direct help to teachers so that they can also get better," said Stamford Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr. He expects to cut 12 elementary school literacy coaches and a professional development program unless the district's $1.5 million in early reading success money is restored.

Mayo, from New Haven, said he had been assured restoring the grants was a top priority for legislators of both parties.

"I don't know what the chances are," Mayo said, noting that the current legislative session ends at midnight tonight. "But we're certainly going to give it all that we can between now and 12 a.m."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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