STATE BUDGET Taft folds OhioReads into other programs

The move combines several reading efforts into one entity.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Gov. Bob Taft's proposed budget for the first time lumps most of the funding for his OhioReads initiative, once his top policy priority, together with other state reading programs.
Formerly an independent office, OhioReads is now funded under the Office of Reading Improvement. The classroom grants once specific to OhioReads have been renamed literacy grants and are being expanded to young children struggling to read as well as middle and high school students.
But reflecting tight budget times, the proposed amount of the grants -- about $12 million a year -- would not increase from the most recent two-year budget.
Schools with OhioReads' grants used the money to buy books and other reading materials and help arrange volunteer tutors for children.
Taft's $51 billion spending plan still contains a stand-alone proposal to pay for background checks on OhioReads volunteers and to pay program coordinators at schools. But the amount would be cut from $4.2 million to $3.9 million next year, an 8 percent drop. The funding would stay the same in 2007.
Taft said in last week's State of the State speech that Ohio has 50,000 reading tutors under the program.
The new system brings all the state's reading programs under one roof, "to make sure we have coherence in all that we say and do and produce," said Kelly Davids, director of the Reading Improvement office and former OhioReads director.
"OhioReads is not going away, it's just becoming its next generation," Davids said Tuesday.
Highly promoted
Taft, a Republican, pushed for OhioReads from the time he took office in 1999. Lawmakers have provided more than $140 million through this year.
An October 2003 analysis of OhioReads by Indiana University researchers found no difference in the proficiency scores between schools that got money from the program and schools that don't.
The same month, Taft asked State Schools Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman for suggestions on better coordinating OhioReads with other state literacy programs.
The change in OhioReads disappointed Kathleen Erhard, principal at John Clem Elementary School in Newark. The state held up the school of about 400 pupils, about half of them poor, as a model of improvement under OhioReads' system of grants and volunteer tutors.
John Clem used its $60,000 in grants to create classroom libraries, train tutors and prepare students for reading tests.
But Erhard said she was told the school was ineligible this year for the new literacy grants because its test scores improved so much it was no longer considered academically troubled.
"What happens to those of us who have worked so hard and we get the resources pulled out from under us?" Erhard said Tuesday. "I'm supportive of what we've done this far, and I want it to continue for children."
Sylvania city schools in suburban Toledo has more than 300 volunteer tutors in seven elementary schools. The district has always seen its tutors as supplements to classroom teachers, not a way to raise test scores, said district spokeswoman Nancy Crandell.
"I sometimes wondered if a person coming in off the street that has no background that way could really effect a change on that level," she said.
In August, the Education Department said 78 percent of third-graders passed the new third-grade reading achievement test, above the state minimum standard. The state also said 71 percent of fourth graders passed the fourth-grade proficiency test that is slowly being phased out.
In 2000, only 58 percent of fourth-graders had passed the test. The improvement shows that the state's overall approach to reading is working, Davids said.
"It's the combination of strategies that makes the difference, not one individual strategy," Davids said. "Any time you evolve a project, you look at what you're doing right, you look at how you can strengthen everything that you're doing."