Federal Literacy Debate May Go Down to the Wire

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Congress has six weeks to choose between spending $210 million on a new reading program or channeling the money to special education.

The reading program's long odds of capturing the bounty improved last week when the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill that would authorize funding for professional development of reading teachers.

But that bill has notable differences with a House-passed literacy measure, raising questions about whether Congress will meet a July 1 deadline to authorize the $210 million program or instead allow its funding to shift into state special education grants in fiscal 1999.

"It's possible that we can get it done," said Jay Diskey, the communications director for the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "Probable? I don't know."

Congress set the deadline last fall when it appropriated money for a new reading program, but made the funding contingent on the program's being signed into law by July 1. If the bill is still unfinished by that date, the law appropriating fiscal 1998 money requires that the $210 million set aside for reading be transferred automatically to special education.

"It's going to be nip and tuck on the timing," said Richard M. Long, the Washington representative for the International Reading Association, a professional group of reading teachers based in Newark, Del. "The key is going to be how the House responds. If anybody says something has to be in the bill, it's going to make it a lot tougher to get done."

Regardless of the outcome, it appears that President Clinton will not see literacy legislation to create a program like the one he proposed in a 1996 campaign stop and included in last year's State of the Union Address. His America Reads program--which predates the House and Senate proposals--would train 1 million volunteers to tutor K-3 students. Although neither congressional bill includes a major volunteer component, hundreds of local programs built on that model have sprung up around the country. ("'America Reads' Is Taking Hold at Grassroots," May 6, 1998.)

Center of Debate

In November, the House passed its bill, which would form state committees that would be charged with distributing federal reading money to school districts. To qualify for funding, districts would need to describe how they would improve instructional practices of reading teachers. The bill also would allow schools in high-poverty areas to award vouchers--called tutorial-assistance grants--so parents could pay for tutoring.

The exact version of the bill that passed the House is attached to a measure that would create tax incentives to help families save for K-12 expenses. But President Clinton has already said he would veto that bill because of the tax policy.

That means the Senate bill will be the center of debate over the next six weeks. The bill will not be put to a vote in the Senate vote until June, according to Joe Karpinski, the communications director for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Unlike the House, the Senate would not create a new panel to distribute the money. Instead, it would expand the existing $335 million Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development program to include the professional development of reading teachers. The program now focuses primarily on mathematics and science teachers.

Federal reading money would be distributed by state education agencies, with an emphasis on low-income communities.

The Senate bill, which passed May 13, does not include the tutorial-assistance grants, or TAGs, a difference that may prolong negotiations in coming weeks.

"We're pleased that [the Senate bill is] moving, but we wish it had the TAG grants in it," Mr. Diskey said.

If the grants are included in the final bill, the president may not sign it. Before the House voted on its bill, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called them "unnecessarily costly, bureaucratic, and disconnected" in a letter to Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House education committee and the bill's chief sponsor.

IDEA Twist

But the criticism may be moot. Even though Republican leaders are prodding literacy bills through the legislative process, many GOP lawmakers would prefer to reserve the money for special education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is severely underfunded, they say, because the federal government has never come close to meeting its 23-year-old promise to pay 40 percent of the excess costs of educating disabled children. ("GOP Puts Priority on Raising IDEA Funding," in This Week's News.)

If the $210 million ends up in the IDEA, it would be a down payment on the $1.3 billion increase Mr. Goodling and others are seeking for fiscal 1999, which begins Oct. 1.

The $4.5 billion program received a $746 million increase for this year.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 25

Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Federal Literacy Debate May Go Down to the Wire
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