As the Founding Fathers completed the courageous but self-evidently treasonous activity of inking their names to the Declaration of Independence almost 225 years ago, Benjamin Franklin tossed off this gem of a warning: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The many interest groups facing consolidation of funding for their prized education programs under President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2002 budget are sending the same message to their grassroots supporters: Lobby Congress en masse to keep your programs. But Franklin’s advice, in this case, cuts both ways: If these programs are hung together as block grants, as the president would have it, there almost certainly will be less funding than if they remain separate initiatives.
Funding for more than 30 education programs would be consolidated into broad-based grants or eliminated entirely under GOP plans for this year’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization and President Bush’s budget proposal. Many mainstays of the Department of Education’s budget—including the civic education program, the National Writing Project, Javits gifted-and-talented grants, and the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology initiative—would become historical footnotes. The proposals have spurred educators to journey to Capitol Hill, or write letters and e-mails, to convince their representatives of the merits of keeping separate programs for their causes.
Grassroots blitzkriegs such as this have fended off consolidation or elimination in the past. Done right, lobbying efforts usually make it hard to kill or combine education programs. Lawmakers like to accommodate well-organized groups or constituents who make a fuss, and marginal but worthy-sounding programs are often the pet causes of well-placed senators or congressmen.
“Many of the groups who got these programs enacted are wise to the ways of Washington,” said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center for Education Policy, a Washington research group. For instance, teachers who participated in the National Writing Project recently made the rounds to urge representatives to continue the program and held a Capitol Hill reception for lawmakers.
The Consortium for School Networking in February sent to the Hill 100 teachers who had benefited from the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program.
Reading Is Fundamental, a private program to distribute books to needy children, received $23 million in federal support this year. But RIF’s funding would be consolidated under the Bush plan. Supporters have organized a letter-writing and e-mailing campaign to prevent that.
Rachel S. Blechman, a Miami lawyer who has organized various RIF activities for more than two decades, immediately e-mailed her senators and representative when she heard RIF’s money might be absorbed into a block grant. She has since urged other volunteers to do the same, and is hoping its funding will survive.
Those who favor consolidation—including President Bush and GOP leaders in Congress—argue that it’s a solid idea that continues to be drowned out by politics. A former aide to House Republicans noted that while many members of Congress would support eliminating certain education programs, they worry that such a strategy could backfire politically.
“There are some programs that are really good programs, and others that everyone knows are just worthless but they have highly charged, politically correct names,” said Vic Klatt, who is now a vice president with Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington lobbying firm. Rather than working to eliminate the weak programs, he said, lawmakers “don’t think it’s worth the fight, and as a result, [the program] lives forever.”
“It really should be up to the state and districts to decide what works for them,” said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “It’s very easy to start [a program], and it’s very difficult to end one.”
The problem, she said, is that groups find a “patron,” a member of Congress willing to fight to keep the specific program alive to win favorable publicity back home.
The patrons, who can be found on both sides of the political aisle, insist the initiatives have proven their worth.
For instance, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has become a congressional angel for programs aimed at gifted and talented students. Sen. Grassley has not only supported the $7.5 million Javits program of gifted-and-talented grants, but has also proposed separate legislation to create additional grants.
While Mr. Grassley supports consolidation of funding of other programs, his spokeswoman, Beth Pellett, said he supports keeping the Javits program separate.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, are also working to save a pet program, the National Writing Project. They introduced legislation earlier this year to keep the $10 million program, which helps train teachers to help improve students’ writing.
Democrats and education lobbyists argue that, with block-grant funding, states and districts may overlook or choose not to pay for some priorities, such as arts education, likewise slated for consolidation. They also believe that funding for block grants is politically easier to decrease because interest groups and constituents are less likely to rally behind an amorphously titled bundle of federal cash.
But Ms. Kafer said that under the proposed block-grant plans, states and districts could choose to put more money into programs they deem effective.
And while President Bush and Republican lawmakers have given momentum to block-grant proposals this year, Mr. Klatt said members of Congress always listen to constituents—and for better or worse, would likely heed their calls to keep many programs free-standing.
“In the end, certainly the vast majority of existing programs are likely to still be around,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Advocates Unite To Block Bush Consolidation Plan