The Reading First Double Standard
Last week, we reported that both the House and Senate committee versions of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill cut all funding for Reading First, a program that supports research-based literacy programs in kindergarten through third grade. Both committees said they based this decision on a recent study, which found no evidence that the program improved reading comprehension scores of students in participating schools. A closer look at the bills, however, reveals that the committees did not apply the same standard to other programs: They continue to fund, and even provide increases for, programs with equally scant evidence of effectiveness.
For example, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities State Grants program received a "Not Performing -- Results not Demonstrated" rating from Program Assessment (PART) of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). According to OMB, the program does not properly target funding for quality interventions, does not collect trend data on its effectiveness, and fails to achieve its annual performance goals in an efficient manner. Nor is there any research evidence showing the program is effective in achieving its stated goals, though the Department of Education is in the process of conducting a Safe and Drug Free Schools impact evaluation. The president's 2009 budget proposed cutting funding for the program by more than $190 million from 2008 levels. But bills from both chambers of Congress would fund the program at its 2008 level of nearly $295 million.
Similarly, OMB labeled the Even Start program "Ineffective," because the program collects data on outputs not outcomes, and has not achieved its annual targets. Three Department of Education studies have also found no evidence that children who participate in Even Start make greater educational gains than those who do not. Based on this, the administration proposed eliminating Even Start funding completely. But both the House and Senate opted to maintain program funding at its 2008 level of $66 million.
The Senate bill would also increase funding for several programs, including the Teacher Quality Enhancement Program and the Byrd Honors Scholarships, which have both received PART ratings of "Ineffective" or "Results not Demonstrated." Similarly, the House bill would increase funding for Vocational Education State Grants, which has also received dismal assessments. None of these programs have demonstrated results, met their yearly performance targets, or collected sufficient data to assess their efficacy. The president's budget cut all funding for these initiatives.
Ed Money Watch does not necessarily agree with the appropriations committees' decision to defund Reading First based on a single, preliminary evaluation. But we are pleased to see the committees include evidence of effectiveness in their appropriations decisions. Some programs have not produced any measurable success for decades and continuing to fund them takes scarce federal funds away from other, more effective programs.
Congress should not hold some programs to a higher standard of evidence than others. Appropriators should extend their concern about the effectiveness of federal education programs beyond Reading First, and start applying the same standard to other federal programs with little evidence of success.