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House Passes Bill to Keep Gov’t Running, Scrap Reading Programs

By Alyson Klein — March 01, 2011 3 min read
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The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would keep the lights on at the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies for the next two weeks. The bill was approved 335 to 91.

The measure, which cuts about $4 billion in spending, is meant to give lawmakers more time to hash out their differences, while averting—for now—a government shutdown.

The measure also includes significant cuts to education programs, including entirely scrapping the $250 million Striving Readers program, the $88 million Small Learning Communities Program, and the $66 million Even Start program. It also would get rid of the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships, or LEAP, program, financed at $64 million.

The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate, where it is expected to pass. But at least two Democrats have signaled that they are unhappy with the education cuts.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who heads the subcommittee overseeing K-12 spending, will work to restore the funding cuts to education in a longer-term spending bill, particularly the cut to Striving Readers, which he views as a unique and necessary program, an aide said.

In an emailed statement, Harkin said:

When are we going to learn that we need to stop eating our seed corn? When you cut education, that's what it amounts to—hurting kids, especially the neediest kids, some of our Title I schools and others. But in the end, it will hurt us down the road. "There is no question that the time has come for tough budget decisions, but the smart way to bring down the deficit is for Congress to pursue a balanced approach of major spending cuts and necessary revenue increases, while continuing to make investments in education."

Washington Democrat Patty Murray’s spokesman, Eli Zupnick, had this to say regarding the elimination of Even Start and Striving Readers:

Senator Murray is very concerned about the House Republicans' drastic cuts to literacy programs in their short-term spending proposal. She is currently working with her colleagues in the Senate to make sure they understand the impact these extreme cuts would have on young people across the country who need these critical program to succeed. Senator Murray feels strongly that literacy programs are some of the best investments we can make in our nation's future, and that slashing them would hurt our ability to remain competitive in the 21st century economy."

Republicans have said that President Barack Obama has targeted the same programs for elimination, but Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department, said that the administration wanted to see them consolidated into broader funding streams.

For instance, both of the reading programs would be part of a bigger, competitive fund aimed at improving literacy. If the programs are cut, there would be less money available for the consolidation efforts.

Some advocates, particularly for reading programs, are none too happy with the cuts and are waiting to see what the administration has to say about the reductions.

“The whole section on literacy in the well-rounded education proposal” in the president’s budget “is really being hit with this first budget. The administration has to make the case that it’s not a good idea,” said Susan Frost, a vice president of the Sheridan Group who was a senior adviser in the Education Department during the Clinton administration.

But she added that the consolidation proposal may make that argument tougher: “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.”

Frost is also worried about the direction of education spending overall, particularly if these cuts become reality.

So far, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hasn’t issued a statement specifically speaking out against the elimination of the reading programs. (My guess is that the department is probably in a tight spot, since the administration is looking at the two-week extension as a whole and no one wants to see a government shutdown.)

The measure includes other cuts to education, particularly to programs the House Appropriations Committee describes as “national earmarks,” money doled out directly to a particular pet program or non-profit organization. Examples of programs cut in the bill include Teach for America, the National Writing Project, Arts in Education, and Reading is Fundamental.

Earlier, the House approved a longer-term spending bill, meant to finance the federal government through Sept. 30, that includes $5 billion in cuts to education. The Senate has not yet acted on that measure.

In other budget news, Duncan testified before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, where Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the committee, cautioned against the department’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, which includes an about 11 percent increase in education spending, including Pell Grants.

Here’s a snippet from his statement:

All of us favor education, but we can't continue these large increases in spending—every dollar of which is borrowed. This request for an 11-percent increase—more than 30 percent what we were spending in 2008—is an affront to common sense and an affront to the will of the voters. "Education has been the beneficiary of unprecedented increases in recent years without, let me add, any significant increase in student performance."

Duncan also fielded bipartisan concerns about the department’s focus on competitive grants. For instance, both Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said rural schools are nearly always going to lose out in competitive grant competitions.

In response, Duncan said that most of the department’s funding remains formula-based. And he said that the department is hoping to set aside money for rural districts in a new version of the Race to the Top competition, proposed in the fiscal year 2012 request, which would be focused on districts.