FILE - Child reading

(The Center Square) – The first state-funded book distribution program in the U.S. began last December in Florida, which delivers high-quality, free books to K-5 students every month.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said the program already has begun delivering free books to 81,000 Florida children.

The state legislature created “The New Worlds Reading Initiative,” allocating nearly $200 million for the program through HB3. The bill passed in the last legislative session and DeSantis signed it into law in June.

The announcement came as the Florida Department of Education and school districts are celebrating Florida’s 14th annual “Celebrate Literacy Week.” Events are scheduled throughout the state to promote the joy of reading.

“One of the most important things we can do to put students on the path toward success is making sure they develop literacy skills early in life,” DeSantis said at a news conference held at Riversink Elementary School in Crawfordville. “Our goal is to make Florida the number one state in the nation for literacy because the benefits of reading stay with our children for the rest of their lives.”

He was joined by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who proposed the New Worlds Reading Initiative during his November 2020 Organization Session speech.

Sprowls said he was “extremely proud of the hard work of the Florida House and our partners in the Senate last session to ensure that every child has a home library and every parent has the resources they need to help their child experience new worlds through reading. Seeing thousands of students get excited about receiving their books each month is something to truly celebrate this Celebrate Literacy Week.” 

In addition to the $200 million to fund the book program, the legislature also passed other bills DeSantis signed into law related to literacy initiatives. HB 419 and HB 7f011 allow districts to use existing allocations to fund intensive interventions for prekindergarten students, create a coordinated system of statewide literacy support, including a new initiative that recruits high school seniors to become literacy tutors for struggling K-3 students.

Last school year, Florida also utilized $35 million in CARES Act funding to support literacy initiatives. Of the funds, $20 million went to districts to adopt and implement Florida’s new B.E.S.T. Standards and align curriculum and supplemental instructional materials for reading in grades K-3. An additional $5 million each went to fund teacher and school leader professional development training programs, regional support teams to reinforce professional development and coaching models, and to develop and train regional literacy coaches to provide support and guidance to classroom teachers.

Florida also invested over $80 million to fund and support other literacy initiatives, including $61 million for direct student interventions, $15.8 million for a coordinated screening and statewide progress monitoring system, $4 million to help elementary school principals and assistant principals create literacy practices, and $3 million for Literacy Coach Boot Camps to improve the skills and proficiency of literacy coaches.