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 Reading education in Rhode Island is backed up by a bold law called the Right to Read Act. It just doesn’t have any money. (Jo Sittenfeld/Rhode Island Current)

Passing any legislation is only feel-good when it isn’t backed up with a fiscal investment.

“It’s the mother of all unfunded mandates.”

So said one wag among the many educators I’ve talked to lately about the Right to Read Act. School administrators in particular expressed similar sentiments in less colorful terms. How could a governing body decide to use their power to give real sparkle to Rhode Island’s lackluster education system — and then not attach a single dollar to their demands?

Granted, the Rhode Island Department of Education cobbled together a bunch of competitive grants the districts could apply for and maybe get. Some schools used their federal ESSA money, which will be entirely gone in September, adding to the deficit now referred to as “the fiscal cliff.” Unfortunately for struggling readers, some schools were delighted that the pandemic windfall could pay for other long-standing needs — computers, raises, mental-health workers.

But with Right to Read, all schools, district and charter, must figure out how to meet the massive challenges of getting their entire staff trained in science-based reading, paying for substitutes to cover those teachers during training, and buying new curricula with related materials, and so forth. Reading instruction here is shifting 180 degrees, which is great. But not if the underfunding is a setup for failure.

In 2019, every U.S. state tanked in national reading scores except one, afterwards called the “Mississippi Miracle.” The Mississippi Legislature invested $20 million in coaches. Even with training firmly under their belts, all teachers will still need the support of classroom coaches because the changes in instruction are huge. With the fiscal cliff bearing down, traditional district schools will be laying off staff because the labor contracts make it virtually impossible to redeploy money according to the school’s needs. Coaches are rarely nailed into contracts, so along with other support services, they’ll be among the first out the door.

So, what do Rhode Island’s government officials think about funding Right to Read?

First, in his 2025 budget address, the Gov. Dan McKee did say he’d set aside $15 million for both math and English language arts coaches in low-income schools. The reading advocates have no issue with sharing coaching help with math; both are sorely needed. But nowhere did the governor make mention of Right to Read in the budget address or in the budget itself, never mind whether any of these coaches will be dedicated to it.

The governor’s budget also sets aside another $5 million for the Learn 365 initiative, a boondoggle that promises to close the gap in scores between Massachusetts and Rhode Island with after-school programming that will somehow improve “critical thinking.” (I challenge the governor to define this.) Conversely, Right to Read addresses the instructional day, which is where the real academic action is.

 School-level RICAS and MCAS math performance by proportion of low-income students, 2022. (SOURCE: Annenberg Pandemic recovery K-12 RI schools)

See the chart above to get a sense of how hard catching up could be. However, Massachusetts, the darling of U.S. education, has no such reading law, so they might drop back. Parents are waging the battle for science-based reading in several of Massachusetts’ 306 districts. We are underway already.

Second, according to calculations by Gary Sasse, now director of the Bryant University’s Institute for Public Leadership who formerly led the Rhode Island Expenditure Council (RIPEC), the governor’s budget changes the state’s funding formula to the disadvantage of the kids.  Sasse writes: “What is being proposed is to cap and index the core instructional amount to the CPI [Consumer Price Index], not even the regional CPI. This change would not only reduce funding by $26 million, but represents a radical change in establishing the core instructional amount that is not indexed to regional educational costs.”

Sen. Sam Zurier, a Providence Democrat and the only one of several legislators who responded to my queries, wrote: “I believe the better practice is to incorporate these initiatives into the Basic Education Plan, which provides a basis for adjusting the “core instructional amount.”

In other words, build Right to Read into the document of principles that govern Rhode Island education to cover its costs, which would raise the state’s share of the per pupil expenditure (PPE) — not reduce it.

Rhode Island has the 8th highest per-pupil expenditure in the nation – $17,539 on average, with urban and charter schools getting less. Massachusetts has the 6th highest, with significantly better results and a higher cost of living. By lowering the PPE, the supposed urgency for closing the gap with Massachusetts is hypocrisy.

Lastly, there’s American Rescue Plan Act money just sitting on the table. Of the $211.5 million allocated to us, $25.6 million has been transferred to its budgeted target.  And only $3.8 million has actually been spent. Because we’ve waited so long, at least some of the $84.7 million earmarked for COVID management surely could be directed to reading instruction. And if not, where is it going?

Every legislative mandate needs a fiscal note. No one seems to have asked, never mind answered, what it might take to accomplish the transition to science-based reading. Every public agency and nonprofit in the state has its hand out for financial help. Legislators need to be held accountable for making real investments in public services like education, instead of currying favor with the special interests that can get them re-elected.

Failing to invest in struggling readers, many of whom are Black, Brown and often imprisoned by generational poverty, is radically unfair, unkind, and shameful.

The Legislature needs to fix this.

First published: RI Current News, March 18, 2024

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