In 1965, Congress decided to do something about the reading problem the only way it knows how: by throwing money at it. It passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with its now-famous Title One compensatory education program. The new Title One bureaucracy began showering the schools of America with billions of dollars in the hope that students who were failing in reading would be saved from future lives as functional illiterates. But what actually happened is that the 17,000 school districts that got the money indulged in an orgy of spending and hiring that caused untold joy among the suppliers and new levels of prosperity for the educators.
But did the program do any good for the children? Ten years later the results could be read in newspapers from New York to California reporting the disastrous decline in reading scores. As for SAT scores, they were in an alarming nosedive. The Boston Globe described it as “a prolonged and broad-scale decline unequalled in US history.” The verbal SAT mean score had gone from 467 in 1966-67 to 424 in 1980 — a drop of 43 points!
The failure of Title One to improve reading skills did not go entirely unnoticed. In 1969 the National Academy of Education appointed a blue-ribbon Committee on Reading to study the nation’s illiteracy problem and recommend ways of solving it. In its report issued in 1975, which seems to have been read by no one, the committee had this to say about Title One:
It is not cynical to suggest that the chief beneficiaries of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) have been members of the school systems — both professional and paraprofessional — for whom new jobs were created. Seven years and as many billions of dollars later, the children of the poor have not been “compensated” as clearly as the employees of the school systems through this investment.
The committee recommended a rather radical idea, a sort of reading stamps program — the use of vouchers with which students could purchase reading instruction from competent public or nonpublic sources. The committee further stated:
We believe that an effective national reading effort should bypass the existing education macrostructure. At a minimum, it should provide alternatives to that structure. That is, the planning, implementing, and discretionary powers of budgeting should not rest with those most likely to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, especially given their unpromising “track record.”
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