Spellings Blasts Reading First Cuts

The Education Secretary also softened NCLB rules.

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The nation's education chief got worked up this week when asked about a federal reading program that could soon come to an end. USA Today has her reaction after the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to eliminate funding for the Reading First program.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings reacted angrily Tuesday to the "outrageous" cuts and called them "political theater."

Under President Clinton, she notes, Congress put more than $300 million a year into reading.

"Now we're going to turn back the clock, not only to pre-Bush but pre-Clinton (levels)," she says. "I bet it's been a long damned time since the federal government spent no money—zero—on reading."

She predicts that after the election, lawmakers will come to their senses. "I hope cooler heads will prevail," she says. "If I had a nickel for every person who said, 'Thank God for Reading First,' I'd be a millionaire."

A little context: Since 2002, Reading First has given states $1 billion each year to teach reading to low-income children. But critics of the program, including Democrats in Congress, say it is rife with corruption and question its impact on test score gains. (There is a U.S. Justice Department investigation underway.) Spellings has vigorously defended the program, saying it is key to fulfilling the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act and closing the achievement gap.

This is not the first time that Spellings has gotten testy. She is known as a tough-talking Texan who doesn't shy away from colorful language to defend her education policies. She was equally blunt when she told Florida lawmakers earlier this year, "I want my kid on grade level today. I damn sure don't want her waiting until 2014."

In other education news this week, Spellings has allowed six states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio—to use their own methods for fixing their most troubled schools. That is a departure—and some say a weakening—of No Child Left Behind, which prescribes specific remedies for failing schools. Now those states can choose what intervention strategies to use for schools that are not making progress fast enough under the law. Examples include putting more emphasis on training principals, placing the neediest students with the most experienced teachers, and offering tutoring much earlier than the law requires. Federal education officials plan to keep a close watch.

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Spellings, Margaret
Department of Education