Elimination of ‘Reading First’ Funding Advances

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The full Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a fiscal 2009 spending measure that would eliminate funding for the controversial Reading First program, while providing modest increases for other programs serving disadvantaged students and those in special education.

The bill, which was approved on a 26-3 vote, would provide about $61.8 billion for the U.S. Department of Education for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. That would be a 4.2 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

On June 19, a House Appropriations subcommittee also voted to scrap the Reading First state grants program as part of a similar 2009 spending bill financing education, labor, health, and other programs.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings urged lawmakers to reconsider their decision. State-reported performance data for the program “indicates impressive gains in reading comprehension,” she wrote in a June 25 letter to leaders of both chambers’ committees on appropriations and education.

“Zeroing out Reading First would endanger our academic progress, send the wrong message to teachers, and, worst of all, do a disservice to our nation’s neediest students,” Secretary Spellings wrote.

Created as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002, the Reading First program was financed at about $1 billion annually until this fiscal year. Congress slashed the funding to $393 million for fiscal 2008, after a series of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general suggested that conflicts of interest had occurred among officials and contractors who helped implement the program in its early years.

The Senate panel did not discuss the decision to kill funding for Reading First during debate over the fiscal 2009 education spending bill. But in the House, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cited the results of a preliminary federal evaluation of Reading First, released May 1, which found that the program has had no impact on students’ reading comprehension.

Emergency Spending Bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved $14.5 billion for Title I grants for districts, a 4.3 percent increase over fiscal 2008. And it voted to hike spending to help states cover the cost of educating students in special education, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to $11.4 billion, a 4.1 percent increase over this fiscal year.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with education, called the proposed bottom line for the IDEA “woefully inadequate, but better than what we’ve done.”

Meanwhile, the full Senate yesterday, on a 92-6 vote, gave final approval to an emergency-spending bill financing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that would also permit the federal government to continue reimbursing schools for administrative and most student-transportation costs covered by Medicaid, until at least next spring. A Bush administration directive sought to halt the practice.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, issued a final rule in December that sought to eliminate the reimbursements that school districts receive for certain administrative and transportation expenses from the Medicaid program. Districts receive such payments to cover the costs of transporting some students in special education, for instance.

But, also in December, Congress approved legislation that keeps any school-related changes to Medicaid from taking effect until July 1. The spending bills would extend the moratorium on changes to the school reimbursements until April 1 of next year. Lawmakers who support the moratorium hope that by that point they can negotiate potential changes with the next administration—or just leave the reimbursement program in place, lobbyists said.

The emergency-spending measure would also create a “new GI bill” to expand education benefits for veterans of the armed forces who have served since Sept. 11, 2001. It would provide more than $62 billion over 10 years to help cover the cost of books and tuition, and a monthly living stipend.

But the bill does not include $400 million to provide a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, a program that gives federal aid to make up for diminished timber revenues in counties that are home to national forests.

A version of the legislation initially passed by the Senate last month had included the money, but it was stripped out as part of a compromise between Democratic leaders in Congress and President Bush, who had threatened to veto the bill if it contained too much domestic spending.

Without the money, some districts will be forced to make dramatic budget cuts, including laying off employees, supporters of the provision said.

The House of Representatives approved the emergency-spending bill June 19 by a vote of 416-12. President Bush is expected to sign it.

Vol. 27

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