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Free Book Programs Can Boost Kids’ Reading Scores, Narrow Literacy Gap

By Lauren Gendill  |  March 23, 2023

Fourth grade reading scores decreased across the nation from 2019 to 2022, and the gap between high and low performers widened, according to national assessments.

In response, states have considered various approaches for improvement, including legislative support for statewide book distribution and delivery programs—a topic currently trending in NCSL’s Education Legislation tracking database.

Research shows that reading to and with young children is one of the best ways to help them develop lifelong literacy skills and an interest in reading. Book delivery programs provide free reading material directly to kids. The programs generally are partnerships between an education-related entity, such as a school district, and a nonprofit organization that manages implementation. For example, the University of Florida and Scholastic Corp., a publishing company, administer Florida’s New Worlds Reading Initiative, established by the Legislature (HB 3) in 2021.

Legislation commonly outlines the responsibilities of both the nonprofit and the education entity, such as establishing county-based affiliate programs and promoting program development. California (SB 1183; 2022) and Kentucky (SB 183; 2022) directed the state librarian to administer a dollar match requirement in the establishment of local programs.

Imagination Library Programs

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a popular partner organization for states creating book distribution programs. The Tennessee-based nonprofit was established by the legendary singer in 1995 as a local book distribution program; it expanded statewide through the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation in 2004 and has since spread across the U.S. and around the world.

Since 2020, five states have passed legislation establishing Imagination Library programs. Colorado (SB 185) and Oklahoma (SB 1803) created programs in 2020, and California, Kentucky and Washington did so in 2022. In this legislative session, bills to create programs and funding sources have been introduced in Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Oregon and Texas.

Progress Reports and Implementation Strategies

Among states with established Imagination Library programs, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma and Washington have published information on implementation strategies and initiatives.

The Imagination Library of Colorado’s inaugural quarterly report, published in 2022, included analysis of coverage rates across counties and the criteria for areas that are targeted for growth:

  • Communities with historically underserved students and students from low-income families.
  • Small rural school districts located on the Eastern Plains lacking close access to a public library.
  • Larger rural school districts with bigger percentages of children living in poverty and children of color that have only one public library to serve their student populations.

The Ohio Governor’s Imagination Library site summarizes ongoing initiatives and partnerships with other state agencies. A partnership between the Imagination Library and the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction distributes books to incarcerated individuals and their visitors.

A legislative report by the Oklahoma Department of Education provides information on the allocation of funds, program growth and future projections. To increase the program’s immediate impact, the department allocated $2,495,750 in American Rescue Plan funds to support the expansion of the Imagination Library of Oklahoma from July 2021 through December 2024, with a goal of mitigating learning gaps before kids enter kindergarten.

The Imagination Library of Washington has published four quarterly reports. The March 2022 report summarizes previous initiatives, including program leadership support activities, expansion launch activities and stakeholder meetings. It also provides a “state coverage prioritization strategy” that details the tools used to grow the program, including press materials, social media strategy and content, one-on-one affiliate meetings, standardized toolkits for affiliates, new branding materials and more.

Please note that NCSL provides links to other websites and reports from outside organizations for informational purposes only; it does not constitute support or endorsement of the material.

Lauren Gendill is an intern in NCSL’s Education Program.

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