Newt Gingrich's "Earning by Learning" program caught heat recently when the Wall Street Journal reported that a close friend of the House Speaker's pocketed fully half of the west Georgia program's private donations for his own compensation. The criticism came in light of Gingrich's earlier comments that all of the money collected for his youth reading program went directly to the kids--unlike, he was fond of noting, federal initiatives, in which most of the money goes for "bureaucracy."

The stir over Professor Mel Steely's salary hardly raised an eyebrow in Denver. After all, the local Earning by Learning program is run on a totally volunteer basis: Of the $5,385 dollars collected last year, not one penny was spent on administration.

But that's not going to be true next year.
The folks who ran this year's pilot program are planning to add a salaried position starting next summer. Andrew McKean--the founder of Denver's Earning by Learning program--insists that the part-time salary will be paid only "after money is raised to completely cover the expense of paying children to read." He estimates that 280 kids will participate and that it will cost about $60 to pay each of them a $2-per-book reading incentive. That adds up to $16,800. But McKean wants $10,000 for a half-time program director. Which means that nearly 43 percent of the money the program will need to raise next year won't go to pay kids to read but to pay an adult--McKean assistant Kathy Griswold--to organize the volunteer project.

McKean argues that program costs will still be on the cheap side. After all, he says, the phone, electricity and rent are already covered by Tri-R Systems, for another nonprofit program McKean runs called "Complete the Cycle" (a showroom for products made from recycled materials).

But "cheap" might not be the word the Denver Public Library would use. The library has been running a summer reading program in the city of Denver for forty years now. This summer about 30,000 kids participated, according to DPL spokeswoman Anya Breitenbach.

"That means about a third of all Denver children ranging from three months to fourteen years took part in the [DPL] program," Breitenbach says. "And it didn't cost the taxpayers anything." While the library didn't pay children to read books, it did offer an incentive system, using donated items such as passes to Elitch's and Colorado Rockies baseball cards. Librarians oversaw the reading programs, over and above their normal workload, without additional compensation.

McKean so far has kept his program totally separate from DPL's. But he says he's considering contacting the library soon. "They could donate books for us," he says.

Breitenbach doesn't sound impressed when asked if DPL would consider such an action. "We lend books," she says. "We don't donate them. We'd be happy to sign all his kids up for library cards."

The president of the national Earning by Learning Foundation, Don Jones, says he isn't at all bothered by the idea of salaried program directors. "Every chapter establishes its own organizational plan," he says. "Houston's program, which serves 120 schools, has a full-time salaried director."

And Jones says the statements Gingrich has made about Earning by Learning's money going directly to kids are perfectly consistent with the idea of paying administrators. "What people generate locally is of their choosing and making," he says. "They can do with it what they want."

But Gingrich's press office doesn't seem so sure. "If in fact 43 percent of their contributions are used for administrative personnel, it does seem to be a high figure," says Gingrich press secretary John Cox. Cox says Gingrich is "probably not aware" that salaried positions are becoming increasingly common, "but Don Jones will probably tell him at the appropriate time."

Mel Steely, Earning by Learning's original architect and the subject of the Wall Street Journal story, says the program "was envisioned being all volunteer." But now he says he's resigned himself to the fact that salaries will become more prevalent as organizers struggle to "find people to stay with it year after year." As a result, says Steely, "the Speaker will probably have to change what he's been saying."

Forty students participated in the Denver program's first summer of operation. By the end of the six-week program, the youngsters from Swansea and Smedley elementary schools had read 499 books (an average of twelve per child) and had been paid $1,000 for their trouble. Another $380 was spent on bookbags and $250 on books. The remaining money McKean raised from private donors--$3,344--was banked for next year. Now, says McKean, ten schools and two Indian reservations want to participate. That "additional responsibility," he says, makes a part-time salary necessary.

"But I'm not motivated by the money," McKean insists. "I've seen this program work.


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