The U.S. Senate this week considered a long-delayed fiscal 2009 spending measure that could signal the end of a District of Columbia voucher program and would zero out money for Reading First.
The measure would boost the U.S. Department of Education’s bottom line in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 to $66.5 billion, up from just over $62 billion in fiscal 2008, a 7 percent increase.
Some major K-12 programs would receive modest increases, including $14.5 billion in Title I grants to districts for the education of disadvantaged students, a 4.3 percent increase.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the recently passed economic-stimulus package—Title I programs received $10 billion.
The planned elimination of funding for Reading First represents a reversal of fortune for a prominent initiative of President George W. Bush’s administration. At its height, the program was being funded at $1 billion a year, but it also drew controversy, including suggestions of conflicts of interest.
The spending bill’s threat to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship tuition-voucher program, which lets low-income students in the nation’s capital use federal funds to attend private schools, has sparked strong criticism from supporters of school choice.
The Senate bill, which is similar to a measure that passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 25, says that federal funding for the vouchers would end after the 2009-10 school year unless the program were reauthorized by Congress.
A group of Republican lawmakers led by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, and joined by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, pushed an amendment to strike out the language.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan didn’t take a position on whether the program should be extended. But he said in a statement that he opposes vouchers and that “students currently enrolled in private schools with the help of the D.C. voucher program should be allowed to remain where they are. I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning.”
And Sen. Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which oversees the District of Columbia, plans to hold hearings later this year on whether to reauthorize the program.
A final vote on the measure is expected next week.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as 2009 Budget Edges Closer To Enactment