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House Committee Votes to Scrap More Than 40 Education Programs

By Alyson Klein — May 25, 2011 4 min read
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The House education committee took a first step today toward piecemeal reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—by voting to slash over 40 programs from the U.S. Department of Education.

The measure, which was approved on a party-line vote of 23-16, would get rid of programs that the committee sees as duplicative or not the right role for the federal government. The bill is the first in a series of smaller, more targeted bills, which the House committee says it will consider instead of a broader ESEA reauthorization measure.

The list also includes a number of high-profile literacy programs that lost their funding in the fiscal year 2011 budget, including Striving Readers, the Even Start Family Literacy program, and Literacy Through School Libraries. And it includes programs that haven’t been funded in a long time, such as the Star Schools Distance Learning Program, which last got $11.5 million back
in 2007.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the measure would “lessen the burden on schools by cutting the most unnecessary, duplicative education programs.”

And he made it clear that it is just the first step towards reauthorization. Here’s a snippet from his opening statement:

This bill is the first in a series of education reform bills the committee will consider this Congress. It is not intended to be an answer to all the issues that must be addressed to improve education. It is a starting point that helps us narrow the role of the federal government while making sure that taxpayer dollars can be dedicated to the most efficient K-12 programs.

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the bill wouldn’t actually improve educational outcomes. “This bill eliminates education programs. It does so for the sake of eliminating education programs. Not for the sake of students,” he said. “Nothing in this bill advances or improves education for students.”

Miller agreed that some of the programs eliminated under the bill might be more effective if they were consolidated into broader funding streams, something that the Obama administration proposed in its fiscal year 2011 and 2012 budget requests.

But Miller said that by removing the programs from the books entirely, the committee was potentially cutting off the department’s access to valuable resources. He said lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee were likely to slash all funding for program areas that the committee voted to terminate. He said the committee was “setting a trap” for itself later on in the appropriations process, warning, for example, that if the panel tried to create a new literacy program later on in the ESEA reauthorization process, there would be no money to fund it.

Democrats offered amendments that would have restored authorization for programs benefiting Native Alaskans and Hawaiians, and allowed the department to finance programs including literacy, teacher training, mental health and counseling, financial literacy, the arts, and teacher standards and recruitment. The amendments each failed on party-line votes.

One Republican, Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., sponsored measures that would have restored the authorization for the Parent Information Resource Centers, and also for the Even Start family literacy program, the last of which was started by the panel’s former chairman, Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., whose district Platts now represents. Both of his amendments failed to win support from most of his Republican colleagues, although Democrats on the committee supported them. The amendent to restore the PIRCs was narrowly approved.

K-12 education historically has been a bipartisan issue, and the Obama administration still appears to be striving for an ESEA reauthorization that can draw both Democratic and Republican support.

Although the final votes on this bill were partisan, the overall tone of the debate was respectful and civil. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., a past chairman of the committee with a long record of working with Democrats on education issues, said during debate that lawmakers were all trying to make the best decisions for their own constituents.

“We all represent different districts and different areas,” he said. A program that works well in one district may not make sense as a federal responsibility in lean times, but that doesn’t make it a bad program, he said. “These issues are very heartfelt. ... I think we could find good things about lots of programs,” he said.

It would seem very unlikely, though, that the elimination measure as approved by the panel would win support from the Democratic Senate. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been outspoken about the elimination of literacy programs, for example.

The Education Department declined to comment on the specifics of the legislation. But Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the agency, made it clear that the administration is frustrated with the overall pace of congressional negotiations on ESEA.

“We are worried that time is running out to pass a bipartisan bill by the start of next school year,” Hamilton said. “We need to fundamentally reform our K-12 laws by September, and we remain committed to using all of our resources to help make that happen.”

Just reading between the lines here, that last bit sounds like the department may be gearing up to issue waivers, if Congress can’t pass a comprehensive bill soon.