Published Online: February 26, 1997

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The write connections

The National Writing Project is the little federal program that could.

The Berkeley Calif.-based nonprofit has been the target of President Clinton's budget cuts for four consecutive years. Each of the first three years, it survived--thanks to friends in high places in Congress.

This year, the program's $3.1 million federal subsidy is on the chopping block again, but its advocates are confident it will escape the ax again this year.

"It's a window dressing cut," said Richard Sterling, the project's executive director and an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "Three million dollars is minuscule in the federal budget."

That may be part of the project's problem.

In 1993, Vice President Al Gore's government-reform project recommended that the Department of Education slash its small programs, arguing that running them drains administrative funds. Since then, the writing project has been a budget target.

"It's a terrific program," said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, who oversees the department's budget shop.

It's so good in fact, Mr. Smith argued, that it could replace the $3.1 million it gets from the federal Treasury with corporate and foundation grants. The project already raises $15 million to operate 160 satellite offices at universities in 45 states, Mr. Sterling said.

Each of those offices trains 25 teachers every summer on the best techniques to teach writing. Those pupils are required to give workshops on what they learned in the schools.

But the best thing going for the National Writing Project is Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a senior member of the subcommittee that funds Education Department programs. He co-sponsored the 1991 law that made the project eligible for federal money.

Last year, the House wiped out federal help for the writing project, but the Senate wouldn't go along.

Mr. Cochran has been "highly instrumental" in assuring that the project dodged earlier bullets, Mr. Sterling said.

So instrumental, it seems, that the National Council of Teachers of English gave Mr. Cochran an award for his efforts on Feb. 6--the same day Mr. Clinton again called for killing the program.

--DAVID J. HOFF federal@epe.org

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