Time Runs Out for New Literacy Legislation

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Funding for a new literacy program--a priority for President Clinton, as well as some Republicans in Congress--has quietly died on Capitol Hill, where it became a victim of partisan discord and bad timing.

A little less than a week before its self-imposed July 1 deadline for passing a major new reading bill, Congress gave up on the proposal, opting instead to recess for nearly a month without approving a compromise literacy measure.

That means that the $210 million that had been allotted to a literacy bill will be reallocated to special education state grants. In addition, House appropriators are already angling to put President Clinton's $260 million fiscal 1999 request for a literacy program into special education as well. ("Reading Funds May Shift to Special Education," May 6, 1998.)

Department of Education officials say that the battle over a federal literacy initiative is not finished yet, and that they hope to work with Senate leaders to push through another reading bill later this year. But Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sharply admonished Congress for failing to meet the July 1 deadline.

"Congress flunked its own test and left for vacation," he said June 26, the last day before the Senate recessed. "They've turned their backs on the teachers, parents, and volunteers who are working before school, during class, after school, evenings, on Saturdays, and during the summer with children whose futures hinge on mastery of reading."

Some GOP members, including Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, also expressed disappointment.

"We're all for [special education] being funded at higher levels, but at the same time Chairman Goodling really wanted that reading program. He felt it was one area that really needed attention," said Jay Diskey, the spokesman for the Republicans on the panel, who was skeptical that the bill would resurface. "The future prospects of this bill are very uncertain."

With the Clock Ticking

The literacy bill's failure was precipitated by more than a year of partisan disagreement. As the two parties debated the merits of their approaches, time slipped by. Wary of a new federal program and intent on finding more money for special education, some Senate Republicans went so far as to block a vote on reading legislation for months. On the day before the Senate recessed, Republicans relented, but Democrats kept a GOP-backed literacy plan from coming to the floor for a vote.

Mr. Clinton first zeroed in on the literacy issue during his 1996 re-election campaign, when he brandished statistics showing that four of 10 4th graders were unable to read at grade level. But while his America Reads plan--which called for 1 million volunteers to join reading specialists and AmeriCorps volunteers in tutoring elementary school students--became a cornerstone of his 1997 education agenda, it was promptly shunned by congressional leaders.

Instead, Mr. Goodling responded with a GOP plan known as the Reading Excellence Act, which focused on teacher training using proven research. The bill passed the House by a voice vote last fall. It also passed the Senate, but as an attachment to an "education savings accounts" measure that Mr. Clinton has promised to veto because of its tax breaks for private education costs. ("'America Reads' Is Taking Hold at Grassroots," May 6, 1998.)

Running too short on time to pass their own literacy plan, GOP leaders in the Senate briefly toyed with the idea of bringing up the Reading Excellence Act for a separate vote on June 26, the chamber's last day in session before the July recess.

Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said the members realized that the House bill would be difficult to pass without a lengthy debate. "It's not the noncontroversial type of thing that you could whip through and pat everyone on the back for," he said.

Although the Education Department had offered its support, officials there still had qualms about the Reading Excellence Act, particularly its funding for "tutorial assistance grants," or tags. Parents could have used the grants to pay for after-school tutoring from public or private providers, a provision that Democrats felt was too close to a voucher plan.

Groups Unenthusiastic

Neither Mr. Clinton's America Reads plan nor the Reading Excellence Act won acclaim from many education groups. While most school spokesmen applauded the effort to bring the literacy issue to greater national attention, many said they were worried, for example, about untrained tutors coming into schools.

And in the final days before the July 1 deadline, the National Council of Teachers of English launched a campaign to defeat the Reading Excellence Act. The Urbana, Ill.-based group opposed the House language because of its restrictive view of reading research and the inclusion of the TAG provision, said Executive Director Faith Schullstrom.

"We didn't believe this would serve children, schools, or teachers well," she said. "It would limit their abilities to teach and learn."

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 26

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Time Runs Out for New Literacy Legislation
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