Brownback proposes grade-school reading initiative; advocacy groups decry funding method

? Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday unveiled a grade-school literacy program that he said will reduce poverty, but children’s advocates criticized Brownback’s method of funding the proposal.

“This is an investment in the future of Kansas. It is an investment in breaking the cycle of child poverty,” Brownback said at a news conference.

The “Reading Roadmap” program would use $9 million in funds from a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. These federal funds are designed to help poor families achieve self-sufficiency.

Getting low-income children proficient at reading will help them avoid poverty as adults, Brownback said.

But Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, said that while improving literacy is important, Brownback shouldn’t use TANF money.

“As the child poverty rate continues to climb, it doesn’t make sense to shift dollars away from struggling families to programs that focus on literacy later in a child’s life,” Cotsoradis said.

“TANF dollars are meant to help the lowest-income families in the state when they find themselves in temporary situations in which they are not able to pay for basic needs like food, shelter and utilities,” she said.

Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said “reserve” TANF funds would be used.

And Gilmore said one of the allowable uses of TANF funds is to reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Young women who read under grade level “are more likely to become teen mothers,” Gilmore said.

The funds under the Reading Roadmap will provide after-school teaching on reading, summer reading programs and programs that encourage parents to take an active role in their children’s reading skills.

Andrew Hysell, with Save the Children, which is part of the program, said, “We are going to have a model that is going to be great for Kansas and potentially great for the country.”

The lead grantee in the program is the Rural School and Community Trust. Education researchers at Kansas University will determine the program’s effectiveness.

Brian Biermann, assistant superintendent of the Pittsburg school district, said a Save the Children program in his district over the past two years has raised the reading levels of all students who have participated in it.

When he ran for governor in 2010, Brownback said improving fourth-grade reading scores was one of his major goals and that voters should hold him accountable to it.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who is running against Brownback in the 2014 election, said, “I support investments in literacy, but if Governor Brownback is concerned about reading proficiency he should restore funding to public schools and early childhood programs.”

Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Kansas should use TANF funds for providing a safety net and helping poor parents get jobs.

Of Brownback’s reading initiative, Schott said, “I do not think this is a good use of TANF funds when Kansas spends so little of its funds on the core welfare reform needs of basic assistance, child care and work supports.”