Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday proposed a new reading initiative aimed at boosting proficiency among school children.
But his plan sparked a debate even before he unveiled it because of how he would finance it. He wants to use $9 million in each of the next two years from federal assistance funds for low-income families.
Those funds would be supplemented with private dollars to provide programs aimed at boosting reading proficiency, the Republican governor said, while improving the economic future for low-income children.
“I want to see us break the cycle of child poverty,” Brownback said in announcing the program at the Topeka Boys and Girls Club.
Most of the money would come from the Department for Children and Families, which would tap funds from federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. The program typically provides cash assistance to families in poverty.
A number of high-poverty urban and rural school districts would be targeted through after-school reading programs. The program will be evaluated by education researchers at the University of Kansas to determine effectiveness.
The Rural School and Community Trust was awarded the $9 million to work with Save the Children to administer the program in rural schools. Save the Children has been active in southeast Kansas in reading improvement programs for more than a year. Additional funds will be used for programs at Boys and Girls Clubs in urban areas, including Topeka and Wichita.
The governor has focused on improving grade-school reading proficiency since he first ran for governor in 2010. This year, he proposed legislation to hold back students who were not proficient in reading. The measure was heavily modified before stalling in the Legislature.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat running for governor in 2014 against Brownback, said while the need to improve reading was clear, the better way to boost scores was to restore cuts in state aid to school districts. He noted recent test results showing Kansas reading scores in decline.
According to 2013 state assessment results released Tuesday by the Kansas Department of Education, 70.2 percent of all third-grade students receiving either free or reduced-priced lunches were at or above proficient in reading, down from 75.3 percent in 2012. The department uses eligibility for the lunch program as an indicator of poverty and those students who are potentially at-risk of academic failure.
Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said Thursday that the agency looked forward to working with school districts and DCF on the new initiative.
“We are supportive of any initiative designed to assist students in being successful, especially in reading. The use of other agencies and funding streams benefits all,” she said in an email to The Associated Press.
State spending on TANF programs is expected to decline by 11 percent in the coming year because of the policy changes that have left fewer Kansas families eligible for assistance. Those changes have increased the work requirement for eligible families to try to encourage them to find jobs and reduce the need for public assistance.
A children’s advocate said the use of TANF funds for other purposes was an inappropriate use of the resources.
Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the Kansas Action for Children, said the initiative would shift money away from helping families who need assistance in temporary situations for basic needs like food, shelter and utilities.
“It’s short-sighted to take money from basic needs. These are the poorest of poor families,” Cotsoradis said.
While she supports the goal of improving literacy, Cotsoradis said children, from infants to 5 years old, would benefit more from increases in monthly TANF assistance than from school support later in life.
According to the DCF budget request, a family of three receives about $403 in cash assistance monthly. Families must earn 25 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $5,000 a year, to qualify for aid.