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Senate Panel Also Votes to Kill Funds for ‘Reading First’

By Alyson Klein — June 24, 2008 3 min read
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A Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted today to eliminate all funding for the Reading First program, as part of a fiscal 2009 spending bill that would provide modest increases for other education programs.

Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee also approved a fiscal 2009 spending measure that would scrap funding for the controversial reading program, which was authorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In explaining his panel’s decision to zero out the program, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations panel, had 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.

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, gave no reason today for his panel’s plan to end funding for the program.

Richard Long, the director of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, called the actions by the House and Senate panels “unfortunate.”

“We hope this doesn’t mean that the emphasis on reading improvement and professional development is dropped,” Mr. Long said.

Speaking last week in response to the House subcommittee’s action, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said, “it would be tragic to cut the nation’s only reading program when so many policymakers and teachers know it’s working to increase achievement.”

The Department of Education has just released an analysis of state test-score data showing that a majority of states have seen gains in reading fluency and comprehension in Reading First schools. (“Keep ‘Reading First’ Funds, Advisory Group Urges Congress”, June 24, 2008.)

Slight Increase for Some Programs

Reading First, a major initiative of the Bush administration, received about $1 billion annually until Congress slashed the program’s budget to $393 million for fiscal 2008, the current year.

Lawmakers acted after a series of reports by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general that suggested conflicts of interest had occurred among officials and contractors who helped implement the program in its early years.

The Senate bill would provide $61.8 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department in fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. That would be a 4.3 percent increase over the $59.2 billion appropriated for 2008.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee, said he wished the panel had more money to work with.

“I don’t think it is a good bill—I think it is the best we can do,” Sen. Specter said during the subcommittee meeting. “There’s so much that could be done if we simply had the funding.”

The measure, which the subcommittee approved by a voice vote, would provide $154 billion in discretionary spending for education, health, and labor programs, a $7.6 billion increase over last year.

It would boost funding for Title I grants for the education of disadvantaged students to $14.5 billion, compared with this year’s $13.9 billion. The new total would be $225 million more than President Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget request of $14.3 billion.

Sen. Harkin said that even with the increase for Title I, the appropriations would fall “well short of the funds authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act.”

The bill would hike spending to help states cover the cost of students in special education, increasing spending for grants to states under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from $11.28 billion in fiscal 2008 to about $11.4 billion next year.

“We wish the numbers could be higher than they are,” said Mary L. Kusler, a lobbyist with the American Association of School Administrators. “But we are encouraged by the increases for [special education] and Title I.”

The Senate subcommittee released few other details about the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, which the full Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider Thursday. On the same day, the full House Appropriations Committee is schedule to take up its Labor-HHS-Education bill.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week

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