Congress Chops Funding for High-Profile Education Programs

By Alyson Klein — March 04, 2011 8 min read
Photographers record the scene as President Barack Obama finishes signing the two-week funding bill in the Oval Office at the White House on March 2 in Washington.

More than a dozen education programs—including high-profile efforts focused on literacy, teaching, and learning—face the prospect of a permanent federal funding loss after they were chopped from a stopgap spending measure signed into law by President Barack Obama last week.

The temporary spending law, intended to keep the government running until March 18 while Democrats and Republicans try to hash out a deal for the rest of the fiscal year, finances most federal programs at fiscal year 2010 levels.

But education programs such as Even Start, Striving Readers, and the privately organized Teach For America, ended up taking dramatic hits after Republican leaders insisted on cuts even in the temporary spending bill. The measure slashes nearly $750 million from the U.S Department of Education’s most recent overall discretionary budget of $46.6 billion, excluding Pell Grant funding.

Literacy programs bore the brunt. The funding for Striving Readers, which was financed at $250 million, was eliminated. The Even Start family-literacy effort lost its $67 million appropriation.

The Chopping Block

A number of programs and nonprofit groups lost federal funding as part of a short-term budget deal hammered out in Congress to buy time as lawmakers work to pass a budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011.

Striving Readers
A comprehensive literacy program.
$250 million

Smaller Learning Communities
Allocates grants to develop more-personalized learning settings within larger schools.
$88 million

Even Start
Family-literacy program.
$67 million

Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships
Encourages states to develop need-based scholarship aid.
$64 million

Arts in Education
Supports VSA Arts, which offers arts programs for persons with disabilities.
$40 million

National Writing Project
Supports professional-development programs to improve writing instruction.
$25.6 million

Reading Is Fundamental
A book-distribution and reading-motivation program.
$24.8 million

We the People
Works to improve the quality of civics education.
$21.6 million

Teach For America
Trains college-graduates to work in underresourced schools.
$18 million

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
Oversees an advanced-certification process.
$10.7 million

Exchanges With Historic Whaling and Trading Partners
Supports apprenticeship and internship programs in select states.
$8.6 million

New Leaders for New Schools
Trains principals to work in disadvantaged schools.
$5 million

Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational Opportunity Program
Helps low-income students gain access to law school.
$3 million

Close Up Fellowships
Enable low-income students to visit Washington.
$1.9 million

B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarships
Provide aid to help Olympic athletes gain access to college.
Nearly $1 million

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The $88 million Smaller Learning Communities program, which gave grants to districts to create more-personalized learning environments, was also scrapped.

Technically, the cuts are only in place for the two-week time period covered under the bill. But their restoration is considered extremely unlikely, given the aggressive push by lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to slim down the federal government.

And those cuts could just be the beginning, as Congress works to hammer out an agreement for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, which began on Oct. 1.

The House has approved a bill that would cut $5 billion out of the Education Department’s current-year budget, including a cut of nearly $700 million to Title I grants to districts, as well as a cut to Pell Grants for low- and moderate-income college students, and money to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The U.S. Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Education advocates are already worried about what this first round of cuts signals for the future of education spending.

“I do not believe that [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan wanted to sell literacy out. He understands how important it is” to improving student achievement, said Susan Frost, a vice president of the Sheridan Group, a government affairs organication in Washington, who was a senior adviser in the Education Department during the Clinton administration. “I think we’re now into a very high-level political set of decisions by everyone, and that doesn’t necessarily result in the best decisions for children.”

But budget hawks say that increased spending doesn’t necessarily translate into better student outcomes—and that there is plenty of waste left in the department’s coffers.

“The president … needs to take much more than a scalpel to the Department of Education’s budget—there’s room to take an ax,” said Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Obama Plan

When the cuts in the two-week stopgap measure were announced, a press release issued by the House Appropriations Committee said that education programs were targeted in part because they were slated for elimination in President Obama’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget.

But advocates say that’s misleading.

The administration had proposed consolidating 38 programs—including Even Start, Striving Readers, and Smaller Learning Communities—into 11 funding streams in its fiscal 2011 and 2012 budget requests.

For instance, the two literacy programs were supposed to be combined with four other programs into a $383 million funding stream called “Effective Teaching and Learning: Literacy.”

It was unclear whether Congress was going to take the administration up on its consolidation proposal, which would likely be a part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Still, saying the programs were slated for elimination rather than consolidation was “really disingenuous,” said Joel Packer, a principal for the Raben Group, a lobbying and policy organization in Washington. He works for the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition.

A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee did not return calls before deadline.

Support for two private nonprofit literacy programs whose federal aid had been slated for consolidation into the fund—Reading Is Fundamental, a book-distribution and reading-motivation program, financed at nearly $25 million, and the National Writing Project, a professional-development program aimed at improving writing instruction—was also axed.

Lawmakers considered both programs and at least 10 others “earmarks,” or congressionally directed spending, which Congress has pledged not to fund in the current budget year.

Ms. Frost said the administration’s consolidation proposal may have resulted in the targeting of the literacy programs: “Consolidation can be easily ticked off as a potential cut. ... When you block-grant something, you lose the constituency, because no one will say what this block grant is going to do.”

Secretary Duncan said at a March 3 breakfast with bloggers that he hoped the funding could be restored at some point, and that he didn’t consider the cuts in the two-week patch to be the final word on those programs.

But that hope may be a long shot, given GOP lawmakers’ push to slim down the federal government.

Some lawmakers, though, say they’ll try to get the funding back. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who heads his chamber’s appropriations subcommittee overseeing K-12 spending, said he would work to restore the cuts in a longer-term spending bill, particularly the cut to Striving Readers, a comprehensive literacy program that he views as unique and necessary, an aide said.

“When are we going to learn that we need to stop eating our seed corn?” Sen. Harkin said in an e-mailed statement. “When you cut education, that’s what it amounts to—hurting kids, especially the neediest kids.”

Cindy A. Zumwalt, the Even Start coordinator for the Illinois state board of education, said that because of the elimination of funding for Even Start, the 17 programs in Illinois will close. Last year, 643 families received services. She added that 89 percent of the families were at or below the federal poverty level. Seventy-nine percent of the parents were unemployed.

“The staff will have to look for other jobs, and more importantly, all of the families being served will lose service,” Ms. Zumwalt said.

‘Earmarks’ Slashed

A group of 11 senators, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., protested the cutting of programs that they said shouldn’t be lumped in with traditional earmarks: pet projects lawmakers request just for their districts.

“These programs are nationally structured, with many years of bipartisan support,” the senators wrote in a letter to top lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “They benefit millions of individuals and families in a majority of states, districts, and regions throughout the country.”

Some of the organizations affected rely on the federal government for a relatively small portion of their overall funding, including New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit group that trains principals to work in underresourced schools. Federal funds make up 20 percent of its overall budget.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which lost its $10.7 million appropriation, is in a similar boat. The money was used to help teachers cover the cost of getting the group’s advanced certification and to help the organization improve its program. The teaching-standards board will be able to continue its operations without the money, said its president, Joseph A. Aguerrebere.

But some organizations may depend on federal money for their very survival, including the National Writing Project. It gets about 50 percent of its funding from the federal government, with the other 50 percent coming from local matching grants from colleges and universities that participate. Most of those institutions are strapped for cash right now, in the face of major state and local cutbacks, said Sharon Washington, the National Writing Project’s executive director.

“I would love for the Writing Project to continue,” Ms. Washington said. But while she and her staff will “work to do all things possible, we’re very aware of the fact that, without the federal investment, it will be a challenge.”

The program, based in Berkeley, Calif., helps teachers learn how to work with their colleagues to improve writing instruction. Technically, the organization could still get some federal aid from the Education Department through the Fund for the Improvement of Education for programs of national significance, a discretionary pot of money.

But that fund has also been hit. It was financed at $125.4 million in fiscal 2010, but is now down to $37.3 million.

TFA Feels Pinch

Getting some of that money may be tough for the writing project. The department has “given us no indication that they would be able to provide that kind of funding,” Ms. Washington said.

Even Teach For America, a nationally prominent nonprofit based in New York City that attracts a lot of nonfederal support, will feel the loss of federal dollars.

The organization had projected that its 2011 corps would be around 5,400 teachers, said Carrie James, a spokeswoman for TFA. It now is expecting that number to be closer to 5,000, which means that 25,000 fewer students in high-poverty communities will have TFA teachers next year, she said.

The elimination of aid to TFA, which got $18 million in fiscal year 2010, won’t affect the group’s $50 million federal grant under the Investing in Innovation fund, which will be spent over five years and is intended to help TFA grow.

Lawmakers will spend the next two weeks working on ways to finance the budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Education groups don’t expect a quick and painless solution.

In the meantime, school districts, education nonprofits, and other school-related programs may have to hold off on their planning for next school year while they wait for a longer-term solution—or another temporary one.

“It’s just a terrible way to run the federal government,” the Raben Group’s Mr. Packer said.

Assistant Editors Michele McNeil and Mary Ann Zehr contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Programs Suffer Cuts in Funding


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