There is more than one right method
You're right, Reading First is not mandatory. I just visited a school in Oakland that turned down being part of a Reading First initiative because they thought it wrong-headed. I wish others were as professionally responsible. But the published correspondence between the leaders of Reading First demonstrates with what glee and persistence they went about the task of twisting arms—especially in Districts with needy kids under threat of NCLB sanctions. Diane, if the next administration chose to use the same pressure on behalf of Balanced Literacy (as California once did re whole-language—to my dismay at the time), I think we might agree it was abusive. Still you are right to remind me that the fault lies both with those who tried to bribe districts into using their favorite methods and those who took the bribe.
I'll accept the idea that the bribe was offered with good intent, by people who think there is only one best method. It scares me since at this point research into learning proves only one thing: that there is more than one right method. Other examples: research shows that holding kids over does not—usually—help. I still believe that school people and parents are in the best position to make such decisions based on their firsthand knowledge about how it might impact on a particular child in a particular school. Ditto for spelling research, etc.
There is a strong tendency to want to remove controversy from school life and base our decisions on Science. We too often assume Science removes uncertainty. Untrue. The ground between Infallible Certainty and Infallible Faith is above all what schools need to prepare our future citizens for. Democracy requires us to act "as if" we could be wrong. Tolerance for uncertainty is a critical quality of being a well-educated person—for teachers also. It's in our ability to negotiate in this vast in-between that democracy rests. We're not seeking to remove fallible judgment, but to better inform it.
Since, as I mentioned before, American schools rank near the top in teaching kids "how-to read"—based on international test score data of 4th graders—the panic and passion on this narrow subject is curious. I'd like us to explore instead why this edge disappears in later years. It may relate to how we formally introduced reading to 5 year olds—or may not.
I'm back to what first amazed me when I subbed in Chicago schools: how is it that kids who seemed so lively and smart on the playground in front of my house seemed so passive and "dumb" in school?