Current-Year Budget Moving In Congress

Vouchers for D.C. pupils targeted in spending plan, Reading First would end

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The long-overdue, fiscal year 2009 spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week would eliminate funding for the controversial Reading First program and—in a move drawing harsh criticism from school choice supporters—strike a potentially fatal blow to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The measure covering the current year, which slices education funding in a different way from the fiscal 2010 budget proposal unveiled last week, would finance the U.S. Department of Education at $66.5 billion, up from just over $62 billion in fiscal 2008, a 7 percent increase.

The House version of the spending bill, which includes billions of dollars in Pell Grants for college students in its departmental calculation, also provide modest boosts for key education programs, such as Title I grants for disadvantaged students and spending for students in special education.

The legislation was approved Feb. 25, on a partisan vote of 245 to 178. The Senate is expected to take up its version of the legislation this week.

The bill comes on the heels of the $787 billion stimulus package aimed at jump-starting the sluggish economy that includes an unprecedented $115 billion for education programs, spread over fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

Fiscal 2009 started Oct. 1. Although lawmakers rarely pass the federal budget on time, they put it off even longer than usual this budget cycle. Democratic leaders were awaiting the results of the presidential election in the hope that a new president might be more favorably disposed to funding their priorities, after President George W. Bush vetoed a fiscal 2008 measure that increased education spending.

To avoid a similar face-off, Congress passed a stop-gap measure extending funding for most federal programs, including those in the U.S. Department of Education, until early this month. The fiscal 2009 measure would include $14.5 billion in Title I grants to districts, in addition to $10 billion for such grants in the stimulus. That’s a big jump from the $13.9 billion the program got in fiscal 2008.

And the House version includes $545 million for Title I school improvement grants, up from $491 million in fiscal 2008. That program got a much larger boost in the stimulus, which allocated $3 billion for the grants, spread over two years.

The budget would also include $11.5 billion for special education state grants, up from $10.9 billion. The program received $11.7 billion in the stimulus bill.

Program Cuts

The Reading First program, which was funded at $393 million in fiscal 2008, would receive no new money, effectively killing the program.

A series of reports released by the Department of Education’s inspector general in 2006 and 2007 suggested some federal officials and contractors involved in implementing the program had conflicts of interest and appeared to favor some commercial products over others. ("Federal Review of Reading First Identifies Serious Problems," Sept. 22, 2006.)

The spending plan also contains language signaling that the federally funded voucher program in Washington may be approaching its end. The program provides vouchers of up to $7,500 for students from low-income families to attend private schools. This school year, 1,716 are participating.

The bill stipulates that any federal money for the vouchers beyond the 2009-10 academic year would be contingent on Congress reauthorizing the program, enacted in 2004, as well as approval from the District of Columbia City Council.

With top Democrats opposed to vouchers and the party controlling both chambers, analysts say reauthorization is all but impossible.

“It’s a great sign that the Democratic leadership is ready to end [the program],” said Marc F. Egan, the director of federal affairs at the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “We think the program has run its course.”

But during floor debate last week, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, called the language “one of the more hideous provisions in this bill.”

Vol. 28, Issue 23, Page 15

Published in Print: March 4, 2009, as Current-Year Budget Moving In Congress
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