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How Literacy Programs and School Libraries Fare Under the New Federal Bill

A look at the literacy provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed the Senate today and awaits the president's signature, illustrates just how differently the federal government sees its role in reading instruction than it did 14 years ago. While No Child Left Behind authorized Reading First, a $1 billion early-grades grant program with very prescriptive guidelines, the new bill creates a program that will have about one-tenth the funding, is for students of all ages, and that seems to leave instructional decisionmaking up to the locals. 

"This is a significant change in the flow of resources," said Richard Long, a co-chairman of Advocates for Literacy, a coalition of about 70 education groups. 

ESSA calls for creating the Literacy Education For All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) program, aimed at improving student achievement in reading and writing for students from birth through grade 12. LEARN authorizes the Secretary of Education to give grants to states for evidence-based literacy instruction in high-need schools. The U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences would conduct a national evaluation of these programs.

Under LEARN, states and districts must allocate no less than 15 percent of those funds for students ages 0 to 5, no less than 40 percent of funds for students in kindergarten through 5th grades, and no less than 40 percent for students in 6th through 12th grades. 

Out With the Old Programs

LEARN essentially replaces the Striving Readers program, said Long. (Striving Readers actually wasn't authorized by NCLB, but Congress appropriated $160 million for it each year from 2011 to 2014). Long said LEARN will receive about the same amount of funding.

The new bill gives states plenty of flexibility in how they use federal funds to improve literacy instruction.

"The locals and states have the authority to be much more deliberative," said Long."[They can] make sure they make effective decisions about which populations really need attention."

Notably, the bill does not reauthorize Reading First, the signature $1 billion literacy program included in NCLB. In 2008, that program was found to have boosted time spent teaching reading fundamentals like phonics, but not to have improved overall literacy. Congress defunded it amid allegations of impropriety in how state grants were awarded. 

Long said his groups are pleased with the bill, but of course, there's always a risk of unintended consequences. 

Libraries Get a Boost, Too

The 60,000-member American Library Association is singing the praises of ESSA, saying the bill protects school libraries in ways the previous No Child Left Behind Act did not.

"We are just so pleased," said Sari Feldman, the 2015-16 president of the American Library Association, in an interview. "School libraries and school librarians are really recognized as critical education partners in this bill."

Budgets for school libraries were cut significantly in many places during the Great Recession, partly because states and districts had so many other federal requirements to fulfill, the group says.

The new bill also authorizes the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program, which was previously funded through appropriations. This provision allows the education secretary to "award grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements, on a competitive basis" to promote literacy programs in low-income areas, including "developing and enhancing effective school library programs." Those funds can go toward library resources and providing professional development for school librarians.

States and districts can also use Title II funds for "supporting the instructional services provided by effective school library programs."

And the bill encourages local education agencies to assist schools in developing effective school library programs, in part to help students gain digital skills. 

"It's very clear that as libraries are called out by the federal government in this legislation and there's opportunity to apply for funding around effective school libraries, it will also strengthen state mandates around libraries," said Feldman. 


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