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Published in Print: June 13, 2007, as Democrats Move to Slash 'Reading First'

Democrats Move to Slash ‘Reading First’

House subcommittee's fiscal 2008 plan would cut program 61 percent.

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House Democrats want to put their own stamp on federal education spending by increasing Title I and other programs they favor and slashing Reading First and other priorities set by President Bush.

In the $56 billion fiscal 2008 spending bill for the Department of Education unveiled by the Democrats, No Child Left Behind Act programs would receive a $2 billion increase, with the Title I program for disadvantaged students receiving $1.5 billion of that.

But the $1.03 billion Reading First program—which the Bush administration points to as one of its biggest accomplishments under the NCLB law—would take a cut of $630 million, or 61 percent. What’s more, the administration’s latest proposals for private school vouchers and new mathematics programs would not be funded at all.

“This [Reading First] cut will not be restored until we have a full appreciation of the shenanigans that have been going on,” said Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Reports by the Department of Education’s inspector general and congressional investigators have outlined management and ethical questions involving the program.

Republicans voiced no objections to the Reading First cuts or other spending levels during the June 7 session of the appropriations panel’s Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. The subcommittee approved the Democratic plan in a unanimous voice vote.

“If I were chairman,” said Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., the subcommittee’s senior Republican, “I don’t know that I would have made the bill a whole lot different.”

With their victories in the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.

Education Department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said via e-mail: “It’s amazing that Congress would cut a program that benefits so many poor and minority children in this country. Reading First is a proven game-changer for a lot of children, getting them the help they need to become stronger readers and succeed in school. Cutting Reading First funding means cutting a lot of kids’ prospects of success in school.”

Punishing the Department?

Some reading experts agreed that, despite the problems with Reading First outlined in six inspector general reports since last fall, the program is worth saving.

The findings essentially supported complaints that federal officials appeared to favor the use of some commercial programs, and discouraged others, during the implementation of Reading First. The inspector general’s findings largely substantiated the allegations of conflict of interest and mismanagement in the program. A Senate education committee report last month also described alleged ethical breaches by reading experts who gained financially while assisting in the rollout of the 5-year-old program. ("Senate Report Cites ‘Reading First’ Conflicts," May 16, 2007.)

“The move to eviscerate the program by drastically cutting it is the ultimate example of throwing the baby out with the bath water,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association.

Even critics of the implementation and oversight of Reading First have expressed support for the program, and particularly for the funding and other help it provides districts for professional development and instructional practices that have been deemed effective in scientific studies.

“This is not the way I had hoped it would go,” said Robert E. Slavin, the founder of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation and one of three vendors whose complaints to the inspector general’s office in 2005 led to a broad review of the program.

“The department has yet to give a full accounting of the problems,” Mr. Slavin added. “But unfortunately, punishing the Education Department [by reducing funding] means punishing the kids who can most benefit from Reading First.”

Separate evaluations of Reading First have found that participating schools spend more time on reading instruction, and that teachers in such schools are more knowledgeable about the reading process. Student-achievement results to this point show that schools in the program are improving on some test measures, although it is not clear whether Reading First is driving the gains. ("State Data Show Gains in Reading," April 25, 2007.)

Democratic Priorities

Reflecting the new House majority, the spending bill approved by the subcommittee has a distinctly Democratic theme. It would increase Education Department discretionary spending in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 from $57.4 billion to $61.7 billion, a 7.4 percent jump. Overall, it would appropriate $153.7 billion for programs in the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments, as well as a handful of other federal agencies. That would be an $8.9 billion increase over fiscal 2007.

Programs under the NCLB law would receive almost half the Education Department’s overall increase, going from $23.6 billion to $25.6 billion, or an 8.4 percent hike.

Title I funding would rise from $12.8 billion to $14.4 billion, or by 12 percent, which would be the largest dollar increase in the program’s 42-year history, Rep. Obey said.

The NCLB law’s program for improving teacher quality would increase from $2.9 billion to $3.2 billion, a 10 percent jump, and spending for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers would go from $981 million to $1.1 million, a 13 percent increase.

The spending bill, meanwhile, would not make dramatic cuts that President Bush has proposed for some NCLB programs.

It would provide $272 million—the same amount as in the current fiscal year—for state technology grants, a program Mr. Bush proposed eliminating. For the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, the bill would appropriate $300 million. While that would be a $46.5 million cut from the fiscal 2007 level, the House subcommittee’s level is $200 million more than what the Bush administration proposed.

In higher education, the bill would add $2 billion to the Pell Grant student-aid program, providing enough to raise the maximum award from $4,310 to $4,700.

The bill also would reject key ingredients for President Bush’s plan to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law.

It would decline to provide the $325 million the president proposed for private school choice to give such options to students who attend chronically low-performing public schools.

The bill also would not fund math programs for elementary schools and middle schools proposed by Mr. Bush. And it would give only level funding to the $31.9 million Striving Readers program for middle schoolers, far less than the Bush administration request of $100 million.

Rep. Obey said that the bill’s price tag has raised the prospect that President Bush would veto it. But the Appropriations Committee chairman, who also leads the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, had significant support from Republicans on the subcommittee to finance the programs Congress sees as a priority.

“The House has the power of the purse, and we should not give it up,” Rep. Walsh said. “We certainly need to assert that prerogative.”

The full Appropriations Committee must approve the bill before the House votes on it. Appropriators hope to win House approval for all 13 of the fiscal 2008 spending bills by the end of July.

Vol. 26, Issue 41, Pages 24-25

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