Gov. Bill Lee says he’s reevaluating Tennessee’s literacy strategies as funding dries up for the state’s popular initiative known as Read to be Ready.
The Republican governor said Tuesday he was disappointed that a federal grant that has paid for reading camps the last two summers could not be used for that purpose this year, but that he remains committed to the state’s goals to improve student reading. Tennessee officials had already announced awards totaling $8.9 million to 218 public schools to host the literacy camps this summer when they learned in January that the grant from the U.S. Department of Human Services had to be used for child care programs, not educational camps.
“We have backfilled that federal funding on a short order to make sure that the Read to be Ready program continues through the summer,” Lee said of discretionary funds pulled from the state’s coffers.
But there was no last-minute reprieve for a second major component of the reading initiative: a statewide network of coaches created three years ago to help teachers improve their literacy instruction. That network was dissolved this month after the state education department’s funding request to continue the program was left out of the governor’s proposed spending plan.
Instead, Tennessee will invest $1.8 million to start a three-year pilot program to embed instructional coaches in so called “priority” elementary schools, which are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. That state-funded resource likely will launch in 2020 in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson.
“We’re actually looking at the whole Read to be Ready program to see how it is that it can be most effective,” Lee told reporters during a two-day visit to Memphis. “Was the coaching system in place the most effective one? … We’re going to be looking over the next few months at an overall strategic plan for coaching in the future but literacy in general.”
News about the scope of the funding problems with Read to be Ready caught many educators and elected officials off guard this week as Tennessee appeared to be making modest but encouraging progress toward its ambitious goal of getting 75 percent of its third-graders proficient in reading by 2025. Several superintendents began asking questions, posting on social media, and expressing frustration that the coaching network was being dissolved with little discussion at the state Capitol, only three years after launching Read to be Ready under the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam, another Republican.
“I find it alarming that you wouldn’t investigate or visit or ask questions about a program before you remove it from a budget,” said Joey Hassell, superintendent in Haywood County Schools in West Tennessee. “I feel certain that our elected officials would have spent time debating this in Nashville if they had realized this.”
Rep. Mark White, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he was unaware that funding was in jeopardy for the state’s sweeping reading initiative.
“Every time Read to be Ready came up, we just heard what a successful program it was,” said the Memphis Republican, promising that the legislature will revisit the matter next year.
Much of this year’s discussion in his committee centered around the governor’s voucher proposal, which the legislature passed after years of rejecting the controversial policy. Under that new law — which superintendents, school boards, and teachers groups opposed — the state will start a new program in 2021 to allow some families in Memphis and Nashville to pull their children out of public schools and receive taxpayer money to use toward private school tuition or other private education services.
Asked by Chalkbeat whether the frequent and often contentious voucher debates distracted his administration and the legislature from tending to the state’s literacy programs, the governor said no.
“I think literacy and the education savings account issues are really two separate issues but both are really focused on high-quality education for kids. But I don’t think one necessarily impacted the other,” said Lee, who made education the focus of eight of 14 of his first legislative initiatives, and also has championed funding boosts for teacher pay, school security, and career and technical education.
The governor added that, “while literacy is an important component, so [are] choices for education.”
Also Tuesday, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn emailed the state’s superintendents to update them about the status of Read to be Ready.
She reported the state would need an additional $1 million, plus 22 full-time employees, to restore the literacy coaching network to its original capacity. To continue the summer camps next year, the state would need $9 million, plus an additional 22 employees.
“I will continue to work collaboratively with the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly to identify funding for these important programs,” she wrote the superintendents, encouraging them to contact their legislators about the matter.