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''Reading Is Fundamental'' Does Not Deserve a Reduction in Force

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Today, February 12, Lincoln's actual birthday, I read in USA Today that the Bush administration proposes to eliminate federal funding for Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a non-profit program that has distributed 325 million new books to more than 30 million children over the past 42 years.

RIF has been a popular program on both sides of the political aisle. RIF’s founder was Margaret Craig McNamara, then-wife of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. She was a former teacher and reading tutor who started the program by delivering used books to three Washington D.C. public schools. More recently, First Lady Laura Bush and her mother-in-law, former First Lady Barbara Bush, have served in very visible roles for the program.

I wonder what a self-educated man like President Lincoln would have said about closing down a reading program, so I did a little checking to find out: is RIF succeeding or failing in its mission?



While the USA Today article mentions that RIF has not been on the chopping block since 2001, the truth is that its budget has been approximately $25 million for the past five years, this according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website (see http://www.ed.gov/programs/rif/funding.html). Funding for RIF increased from $23 million in FY 2001, the last Clinton budget, to $24 and $25 million in FY 2002 and 2003, the first Bush budgets. After 2003, the funding was essentially frozen at $25 million for each year.

However, in government budget-speak, a freeze is the same as a cut; salaries, administrative expenses, and the costs of books have gone up. The need for books, however, has not gone down.

And when I go to www.expectmore.gov, a site developed by the US Office of Management and Budget to rate federal programs by their effectiveness — RIF is not listed in the program database! So, the American people don’t even know why the White House considers RIF to be ineffective.

It’s only proper to find out what RIF did wrong, and why the White House wants to take it out of the budget. The USA Today article mentions a preference for a merit-based competitive bid over an automatic grant to RIF, but why, when a non-profit has managed the program successfully for 42 years? Is it because they’d prefer not to fund an organization run by a former Clinton appointee? Cronyism has been part of every political administration since there have been politicians. However, RIF’s board is a mix of public and private members; more than 140 publishers participate. This is hardly an organization of political patronage and “no show” jobs.

I’d prefer to think that the Bush White House would like to cut out RIF because of poor performance, and so would those who are supposed to receive books.

So, I looked at the Performance Plan for RIF. It’s posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s website (see http://www.ed.gov/programs/rif/performance.html). It lists a baseline, the number of books that RIF was expected to place into the hands of low-income children, as well as the actual total.

I might have thought that RIF could not distribute as many books in 2004 and later years, because it had less money to buy books. In 2003, RIF had a baseline of 3.7 million children to receive books, later raised to 3.9 and 4 million for 2004 and 2005. RIF distributed no fewer than 3.6 million books to children each year. RIF didn’t meet the baseline in 2004 and 2005, but it’s hardly a failure when the program was asked to distribute the same number of books — which cost more each year — with less money.

Then, in 2006, the last year that federal data is available, RIF distributed books to nearly 4.5 million children — using less federal money than the year before. That’s hardly an example of a failing program. In fact, one would have to wonder what RIF could have accomplished with an extra million or two.

The USA Today article has a comment by Clay Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Citing him directly from the article, Johnson says that “we are calling out as ineffective some sacred cows. It’s not enough to say, ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ We want it to be a lovely program that works.”

With respect to RIF, the Bush White House has picked the wrong sacred cow to slaughter.

About the Author

Stuart Nachbar operates EducatedQuest.com, a blog on education politics, policy, and technology. He has been involved with education politics, policy, and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as a writer. His first novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, about sex education and school politics in 1980 New Jersey, earned a coveted “Publisher’s Choice” selection from iUniverse.
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