Since President Obama signed ESSA into law in December 2015, there has been lots of conversation around what the long-awaited legislation means for literacy advocates. The ability to read is a prerequisite to improving student achievement, yet there has been reduced funding available for literacy initiatives since the days of Reading First.
However, there is a piece of literacy legislation that was incorporated into ESSA called the LEARN Act. In 2011, Senator Patty Murphy (D-WA) introduced the LEARN Act in the Senate while Representative John Yarmuth (D-KY) introduced companion legislation in the House. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) along with the Advocates for Literacy Coalition worked with the legislators to ensure that literacy was officially recognized as the foundation for all learning from preschool to grade 12.
After a number of years, the legislation was folded into what became known as ESSA. Now as part of ESSA, the act allows the department of education to award grants to states to “develop or enhance comprehensive literacy instruction plans that ensure high-quality instruction and effective strategies in reading and writing for children from early childhood through grade 12, including English learners and children with disabilities.”
The distribution of funds, intended for under-served, high needs children will be:
- 15% for children birth to age 5
- 40% for children in kindergarten to grade 5
- 40% for children in grades 6 through 12
There is an allowance for some discretionary funds and the legislation allows for a small percentage to be spent on literacy coach training and administration.
When states award sub-grants to school districts, they must require the district to:
- From birth to age 5: launch evidence-based early childhood literacy initiatives, provide professional development for teachers and administrators and involve families with the programs.
- From kindergarten to grade 5: implement comprehensive literacy instruction across all content areas for all students, including ELLs, children with disabilities and students reading below grade level. The grants must also provide intervention and support for reading and writing for below level students in school and after school. Also, families must be included in the process.
- For grade 6 through 12: All the elements of the K-5 program are required plus adolescent literacy instruction. Districts must provide time for teachers to collaborate with each other, recruit and train literacy coaches as well as form school literacy leadership teams.
Although ESSA spells out the requirements for these grants, sadly it does not fund them. From the states perspective, this is just one more unfunded mandate from the federal government. Although the act outlines the appropriate prescription for literacy support, without tying specific funds to the initiative, it’s doubtful that much will come from it.