Read to Lead program out of money

State Superintendent Tony Evers and Gov. Scott Walker announced the Read to Lead initiative in 2012. An audit released Tuesday said the program is out of money and not soliciting private funds.

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Gov. Scott Walker’s program to boost early literacy has stalled with state funding depleted, no effort to solicit private donations and the oversight council unable to convene enough members to conduct business, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.

The fifth Legislative Audit Bureau review of the program could also be its last. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee has introduced legislation that would eliminate the statutorily required annual review.

The Read to Lead Development Fund was created in 2012 and has received nearly $500,000 in taxpayer funding since then, with almost all of it being expended on school districts, nonprofits groups and reading programs.

The Read to Lead Development Council solicited no grant applications last year and as of June 30 only had $2,219 available to distribute, according to the audit.

The fund was designed as a public-private effort — it continues to receive about $23,000 a year in state funding — but so far the council has not sought any private funding, the audit found. Officials from the Department of Children and Families, which administers the program, told auditors they couldn’t solicit private funding because of state ethics and lobbying laws, though a 2013 opinion from the Government Accountability Board said the council could solicit funds if it followed certain guidelines, the audit said.

Under the law creating the program, the 22-member reading council has the sole authority under the law to solicit private funding, but it hasn’t had a quorum at any of its three meetings from the past year, according to the audit.

The audit recommends a change in state law that would require the council to solicit private funds.

In 2013, a legislative audit found Walker had yet to appoint members to the council and its initial $400,000 from the taxpayers had not been spent. The next year the fund awarded about $205,000 in grants to seven out of 214 applicants, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel previously reported.

In the 2015-17 budget, Walker transferred oversight of the council from his office and the Department of Administration to the Department of Children and Families with the Department of Public Instruction providing support for grant administration. DCF has since taken sole responsibility for the program.

DCF spokesman Joe Scialfa said the agency is implementing audit recommendations. He said the agency has developed a process for filling the council’s 12 vacancies and has identified several qualified applicants.

Links on the DCF website to records of many of the council’s previous meetings were not working Tuesday. Scialfa said those links were being fixed.

Walker, who announced the program alongside state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, has touted the Read to Lead initiative along with the importance of reading for student success.

In Walker’s 2010 campaign he laid out a goal of ensuring all children can read by third grade, and in the months leading up to the 2012 recall election he announced the creation of the council as part of a schools package.

Last year on Read Across America Day, he issued a statement saying “we continue to invest in initiatives like Read to Lead, which improve literacy in Wisconsin through early screenings, teacher development, and investments in effective programs to help make sure every student in our state is able to build a successful future from a great education.”

In response to the audit, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson didn’t address the audit findings.

But he said Walker’s latest state budget increases K-12 funding by $636 million to an all-time high in dollars not adjusted for inflation.

“Governor Walker is strongly committed to student success,” Evenson said.