Lynn schools superintendent 'shocked' over denied literacy grant
By Jill Ricker
Monday, April 7, 2003

Superintendents from Lynn and a number of other needy urban communities are claiming they were treated unfairly when the state Department of Education denied them millions of dollars in grant money for reading programs.

Lynn, along with Brockton, Boston, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lowell, New Bedford and Cambridge, was rejected for the Reading First grant, which brings science-based reading programs to K-3 classrooms so that all students are proficient readers by the end of third-grade.

Meanwhile, several smaller, wealthier towns, including Brewster, Chatham, Shutesbury and Tisbury, along with five charter schools, were successful in securing the grant.

Lynn Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Kostan said he was shocked that Lynn's grant application was not approved.

"It's unbelievable that a city like Lynn didn't qualify and the others did," he said. "To be honest with you, we were very hopeful and confident that we would get that grant. A city like Lynn, especially with the budget projections we have coming up, certainly is in need of a grant like that."

Kostan estimated that the loss of the grant translates into a loss of several hundred thousand dollars.

"Lawrence received $640,000," he said. "A system this size, I'd say it would be in the several hundreds of thousands."

When he received notification last week that Lynn was denied the grant, Kostan said he was in stunned.

"We thought our people did an excellent job writing the grant and they followed all the recommended guidelines," he said. "We were certain we had made it. It was a major disappointment that we did not qualify for that grant. It's, to me, almost beyond belief. It was very surprising to me. I'd be interested in the criteria used in the selection process. I'm going to research it a little bit further."

In conversations with Brockton Superintendent Joe Bage, Kostan gathered that Bage was equally as irritated.

"He was extremely upset," he said.

Bage said the grant denial was such a shock that his grant-writing team broke down in tears upon receiving the news.

"I had to sit in on people crying - four adult professionals - on why we didn't get the grant," Bage said. "We need every penny we can get, from anyplace and everywhere. At this point, I am very unhappy."
"That pretty much mirrors what happened here," Kostan said of Lynn's grant-writing team. "We had put our best people together in writing that grant. They were just distraught over it."

This year, Massachusetts has received $15 million for Reading First, and is in line for $100 million during the next six years. The state Department of Education awarded 38 grants after examining 64 proposals. Districts were evaluated on their poverty rates, MCAS performance and the number of under-performing schools. The state Board of Education gave final approval of recipients.

Critics of the program say the federal guidelines are too strict.
Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant told his school board that if he pledged to abandon his literacy programs in favor of phonics, Boston likely would have received a grant.

"It didn't get distributed on the basis of need," said Paul Schlichtman, president-elect of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "It got distributed on the basis of who was going to do exactly what the feds and state wanted them to do. It's a further erosion of local control."

The state program director, Barbara Gardner, said Washington "does have a clear direction they want to take reading down." But what it comes down to is that the best proposals get the money, she said.

"We did it thoughtfully and carefully. It's a competitive grant. You've got to write a good grant (proposal)," Gardner said. "I think we got a good mix of school systems throughout the commonwealth."

U.S. Education Undersecretary Eugene Hickok said in the past, "whatever you wanted to do, you did" with federal grants. Reading First, he said, stresses a proven program and accountability.
"A lot of money was spent on reading, without a lot of results," Hickok said of past programs. "Congress and the president, all of us, want to make sure federal tax dollars yield results. The goal here is to do what works."