Senate Appropriations Panel’s Cuts to Reading First Are Less Sharp Than in House Plan

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The U.S. Department of Education’s fiscal 2008 budget would increase under a measure approved overwhelmingly today by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but many of President Bush’s priorities, such as Reading First, would be slated for cuts.

The department would receive $60.1 billion, a 4.5 percent increase over its $57.5 billion fiscal 2007 budget, and a 7.3 percent increase over President Bush’s $56 billion proposal for fiscal year 2008. While the measure would reduce funding for the Reading First program, the cut is not as drastic as the 61 percent reduction proposed by a House Appropriations subcommittee earlier this month.

The Senate measure, approved 26-3 by the Appropriations Committee, would cut nearly $230 million from Reading First, a 22.3 percent decrease from the $1.1 billion it is receiving in fiscal 2007. Lawmakers want to make sure management problems cited in a series of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general have been fixed before approving increases for the program, said Jenny Thalheimer, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees education spending.

Those reports essentially supported complaints that federal officials appeared to favor the use of some commercial programs, and discouraged others, during the implementation.

Still, the bill wouldn’t go as far as a companion measure approved June 7 by the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending. That measure would cut the Reading First program by $630 million, or 61 percent.

“Congress has made a statement about some management issues that are in the past,” said Richard Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del. “They’ve also made a statement that this is still important. They’re aware that there is data that indicates kids who are most in need still need this [program].” He said he hoped lawmakers would eventually adopt the higher, Senate allocation.

The Senate measure would increase Title I grants to school districts for disadvantaged students by about $1.1 billion to $13.9 billion, an 8.3 increase over this year. President Bush had requested a similar hike for Title I increase in his fiscal 2008 budget request, but he had asked that the extra dollars be used for high school improvement and assessments. But the Senate panel declined to specifically target the money to high schools.

The Senate bill also includes $500 million for grants to schools found to be in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act —a 300 percent increase over the $125 million budgeted for that purpose in fiscal 2007.

The bill would increase grants to states to help cover the cost of educating students in special education to $11.24 billion, an increase of $457 million, or 4.2 percent.

Promise Scholarships Rejected

Like the House subcommittee’s plan, the Senate committee rejected the president’s $250 million proposal for Promise Scholarships. The program, which was a key component of Mr. Bush’s blueprint for overhauling the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law, would have allowed poor students in struggling schools to attend private schools using federal funds.

But the Senate measure would restore funding for programs President Bush had slated for elimination, including the $272 million for Educational Technology State Grants, which help schools purchase computers and other equipment and train teachers to use them.

The legislation also makes room for modest increases to programs that have long been subject to stagnant funding, including the TRIO programs, which help prepare low-income students for college. The $828 million program would see a $30 million increase, up about 3.6 percent from fiscal 2007.

The bill would finance the Teacher Incentive Fund at $99 million, the same as it received in fiscal 2006 and less than half of the $199 million President Bush had requested for the program for fiscal 2008.

The Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps districts finance pay-for-performance programs and teacher improvement activities, had been slashed to $200,000 in fiscal 2007. The program’s proponents, such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., feared some Democrats wanted to eliminate the fund, which has been criticized by both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

When they approved the cut for fiscal year 2007, Democratic lawmakers said they didn’t increase spending for the Teacher Incentive Fund in the fiscal 2007 bill because the fund still had leftover appropriations from fiscal 2006 to dole out for new grants.

President Bush has threatened to veto spending bills that are above his budget request, said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel.

But Sen. Byrd encouraged his colleagues to approve the bill despite the veto threat.

“We don’t work for the president, we work for the people,” Sen. Byrd said. “The power of the purse rests right here with the Congress.”

Vol. 26

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