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Pivotal Skirmish Nears in State Battle Over Phonics

Reading: Board votes Thursday whether to put two publishers that critics link to tarnished 'whole language' method on endorsed textbook list. Firms work to overcome the criticism.


The battle to reverse California's embarrassing slide in student reading performance has been waged on philosophical and political fronts over the past 18 months, with many state officials pushing to restore phonics to a central role in early reading lessons.

But the war over how to teach reading is far from over.

In what many believe is the most important skirmish yet, the State Board of Education will vote Thursday whether to put the state's money behind its policy when it decides which textbook companies to endorse.

At stake is a share of the largest pot of textbook money in the nation's history--nearly $600 million over the next seven years.

Most of the 18 reading programs still in contention appear likely to make the "adopted" list, giving them a big sales advantage because school districts can use all their state textbook money--$107 per child in kindergarten through third grade--for materials on the list without seeking the state's permission.

But pro-phonics activists, legislators and a faction of the board are trying to keep two publishers off the list, contending that their materials are too closely aligned with the now-tarnished "whole language" approach, in which students pick up letter sounds and spelling indirectly in the course of reading.

To fight back, one of the companies, the Wright Group, has hired the Los Angeles law firm that includes former Gov. George Deukmejian. He has made calls on the publisher's behalf--placing him on the other side of the debate from Gov. Pete Wilson, who identified himself with the phonics camp last summer.

On Tuesday, Wilson's top education advisor, Marian Bergeson, sent the state board members a four-page letter urging them to reject the books published by the Wright Group and the Rigby Educational Co. as the sort of misguided materials that fail to teach children the basics.

"If we continue to promote reading instructional materials that are not complete and comprehensive in scope, we will be . . . encouraging continuation of the approach to reading instruction that has resulted in 60% of our children failing to read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade," Bergeson's letter said.

Critics say the materials do not include sufficient spelling lessons or children's literature and do not lay a strong foundation for the "decoding" skills needed to translate letters into meaningful words. They also do not include enough books giving students practice in phonics skills, critics say.

But officials for both companies dispute such criticism, and teachers who like their publications have inundated the board with letters urging that they be included on the approved list.

Rigby President Steven Korte on Tuesday sent state board members a point-by-point rebuttal of the critics' objections. Terming them "inaccurate and erroneous," he said the company's books seek a "balanced approach of skill development, phonics instruction and literature."

To reassure its critics, the company has also offered to give additional phonics-related materials to school districts at no charge.

The Wright Group sent a defense of its materials to board members Tuesday.

Thomas C. Wright, the company's founder, said in an interview that he was "confused and appalled . . . that the charges being made have no basis in fact."

Rigby, Wright and the other companies seeking to sell their books in California have been campaigning for months, showing up at campuses statewide to tout their approaches. In addition, Rigby and Wright run for-profit training sessions for teachers that get them using their materials.

A key member of the state board said the vote could go either way.

"All of the board members have been paying very close attention, many of them have met with publishers . . . and they've been getting lots and lots of mail and phone messages both pro and con" said Kathryn Dronenburg, a member from El Cajon who has been leading the campaign against Rigby and Wright.

In the push toward phonics, over the past 18 months, the state Legislature has approved bills revamping the training and licensing of teachers and required that state-approved textbooks include lessons in spelling and how to identify the sounds within words.

In addition, the state schools budget for the current year includes $971 million for smaller class sizes, intended to make it easier to teach basic subjects such as reading and math.

The focus of the board's decision on Thursday, however, is $275 million set aside for school districts to spend on reading textbooks--about $152 million of which must be spent in kindergarten through third grade on books that are organized around phonics.

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