Reading & Literacy

Budget Cuts Raise Questions About Federal Commitment to Literacy

March 14, 2011 8 min read
Simon Rangel practices writing during Kerry Alexander's 4th grade class at Josephine Houston Elementary School in Austin, Texas. She uses strategies learned from the National Writing Project, which recently saw its federal aid cut.
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The elimination of most federal aid for literacy programs at the U.S. Department of Education is raising new questions about the future of the federal commitment to promoting literacy, a role that’s had a bumpy ride in recent years.

Even though some of the more than $350 million in cuts to those programs this month could be reversed, as Congress and the White House wrangle over the budget, some education advocates say the Obama administration doesn’t seem to treat the issue as a high priority. The president himself has devoted far more public attention to the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as he did once again when visiting a Boston public school last week.

“The messaging has been mostly STEM,” said Susan Frost, a former adviser to the Education Department under President Bill Clinton. “If you can’t read and write well, you can’t communicate in those professions.”

The budget ax came down in a March 2 stopgap spending bill as the latest major effort to reinvent federal support for literacy at the department was just getting started.

Last fall, 46 states began work on broad-based literacy plans targeting children from birth to grade 12 in anticipation of competing for about $190 million in grants under the new Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program. Even that money, part of the prior fiscal 2010 budget, is not assured. A broader spending plan the Republican-controlled House passed in February would retroactively rescind it, along with billions more in current-year funding for education and other domestic programs.

“The Striving Readers program is one of the casualties of the budget war, and it’s a program that hasn’t really had the chance to take off,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “The program is positioned to do exactly what good federal policy should do. It should leverage changes in state policy; it should facilitate systemic change.”

It was only in fiscal 2009 that another chapter in federal efforts to improve reading ended. As part of that budget, Congress abolished Reading First, a signature initiative from President George W. Bush that at its height received about $1 billion a year for K-3 reading. The action followed a high-profile controversy over management problems and questions of conflict of interest at the Education Department.

‘Unrelated’ Circumstances?

The spending bill that President Barack Obama signed into law March 2 severed current fiscal-year funding for several literacy programs at the Education Department as part of a governmentwide reduction of $4 billion. The measure also eliminated or trimmed spending for other curriculum- and teaching-related programs, including arts and civic education, though not funding for STEM education. (“Programs Suffer Cuts in Funding,” March 9, 2011.)

The plan originated in the House, where the GOP leadership insisted on cuts as part of a short-term deal to keep the government running until March 18. The legislation bought lawmakers and the White House two more weeks to negotiate on a longer-term, overdue budget for fiscal 2011.

Especially striking about the cuts was the extent to which education programs in general, and literacy aid in particular, were hit. Almost one-quarter of the cuts—nearly $900 million, according to the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying coalition—came from the Education Department, based on the original figures enacted for fiscal 2010.

And more than one-third of those reductions were for programs squarely focused on literacy.

The biggest strike was for the $250 million Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program. On top of that came the elimination of money for the $67 million Even Start family-literacy program, as well as funding for two nongovernmental nonprofit groups: $26 million for the National Writing Project and $25 million for Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF.

Trey Skaggs holds a quote he composed during free writing time.

The department’s only congressionally authorized literacy program to survive was the $19 million Improving Literacy Through School Libraries. But that initiative, too, would be abolished under the larger fiscal 2011 budget passed last month by the Republican-controlled House.

Observers suggest the cuts were not a calculated attempt to eradicate the Education Department’s role in improving literacy.

“It was an unfortunate, unrelated set of circumstances ... that happened to come together in the literacy bucket,” said Ms. Frost, now a vice president at the Sheridan Group, a Washington government-affairs firm.

Much of the fiscal 2010 funding for Striving Readers is still unobligated, she pointed out, and the Obama administration itself agreed last summer to give up $50 million of the program’s original $250 million budget to help pay for an education-jobs package.

“If you have unobligated funds, people with green eyeshades say, ‘Oh, we can take that,’” Ms. Frost said.

Appropriations for the National Writing Project and RIF, both authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, are considered congressional earmarks, falling under a larger agreement by Congress to end that practice.

President Obama may have further contributed to the situation, as House Republicans said many of the cuts were to programs the White House had already proposed to “eliminate.”

Analysts have called that interpretation misleading. The president essentially has proposed replacing all four of the discrete literacy programs that were cut—plus a few other programs—with a larger, competitive fund called Effective Teaching and Learning: Literacy.

Details are few on that proposal, though it has some clear echoes of the new Striving Readers program, with its emphasis on states’ development of comprehensive literacy for pre-K-12 to carry out high-quality instruction.

Presidential Silence

Mr. Obama also has proposed two other “teaching and learning” funds, one for STEM education and the other for a catchall category called a “well-rounded education.”

Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, said the idea is to consolidate a variety of programs into broader funding streams “so that the funds can be used more effectively.”

The literacy fund would get $450 million in fiscal 2011 under the Obama plan. Education Department officials have said the types of activities paid for under the consolidated programs could still compete for a slice of that aid.

When Mr. Obama gave an education speech last week at a public school in Boston, he signaled that he would fight Republicans’ proposed cuts for schools.

“We cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education,” he said. But he made no mention of the big cuts already imposed on literacy programs, instead emphasizing the need for improved math and science education, as well as the value of the administration’s Race to the Top grant initiative.

When it comes to education, the president talks frequently about improving STEM education, and he has personally hosted several events on the topic.

Some advocates believe literacy simply isn’t very prominent on the administration’s radar.

“Frankly, the lack of literacy emphasis [from the Obama administration] has been problematic,” said Mr. Lovell from the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Everyone supports kids’ literacy, ... but STEM just gets more attention.”

In any case, advocates for the literacy programs zeroed out are attempting to preserve their federal aid in some fashion, but analysts suggest it will be a tough climb. Striving Readers may have the best chance, since Senate Democrats put forward a budget plan that provides $200 million for it.That plan, however, was rejected last week by the full chamber.

Senate Democrats have also indicated that programs like the National Writing Project—a national network that provides professional development and other support for the teaching of writing in schools—and RIF could compete for federal dollars in other areas, especially the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, created in the 2009 economic-stimulus law.

“We’re very willing to compete,” said Carol Rasco, the executive director of Reading Is Fundamental, a Washington-based organization that annually distributes some 15 million free books to 4.4 million low-income families. About 80 percent of RIF’s budget comes from federal aid, which it has received for more than three decades.

Value for Money

To be sure, some observers question the value of the large federal investments in literacy.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who served as director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences under the second President Bush, said he doesn’t see much evidence that efforts to improve reading have moved the needle in student achievement.

“I don’t think you can write a very positive book about the effects of the ever-escalating federal involvement in reading instruction,” he said. “It’s all been well-intentioned, and some of it grounded on reasonable research, but there’s not a lot of evidence that it has worked.”

A major federal evaluation of Reading First issued in 2008, for example, found that the program helped more pupils “crack the code” to identify letters and words, but did not have an impact on reading comprehension among 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders. (“Federal Path for Reading Questioned,” Dec. 3, 2008.)

Reading data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show only slight growth for 4th graders from 2002 to 2009, and virtually no change for 8th graders.

What appears to have happened in the post-Reading First era is that the pendulum has swung away from what many viewed as the heavy-handed approach taken with that program.

“It was as specific on the details of instruction” as any program could get, Mr. Whitehurst said of Reading First.

Analysts say the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program is intended to be far less prescriptive.

The program was instituted as part of the fiscal 2010 appropriations process. It builds upon a research pilot program put forward by the Bush administration, called simply Striving Readers, that focused on adolescent literacy.

The new initiative seeks to advance literacy from birth through grade 12, and includes support for professional development and targeted interventions for students reading below grade level, among other activities.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Literacy Cuts Spur Concerns On U.S. Role

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