Reading & Literacy

Literacy Wins, History Loses in Federal Budget

January 06, 2012 5 min read
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The budget compromise recently hammered out in Washington breathes new life into a major literacy initiative at the U.S. Department of Education, but wipes out federal aid for some other department programs targeting aspects of the curriculum, including instruction in American history and foreign languages.

Congress restored the moribund Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, which seeks to promote literacy from birth to the end of high school, as part of an omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2012 that President Barack Obama signed into law late last month. The literacy program, which only recently got off the ground, received no federal aid last fiscal year, but in a quirk of the budget process, money from the year before that is fueling $180 million in grants was awarded to six states in September.

“My reaction is one of gratitude and surprise,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president of federal advocacy for the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, about the decision to keep Striving Readers going. “Like anything else in life, once something is gone, it’s hard to get it back.”

He added: “This program is just getting under way, so to cut it before it has a chance to demonstrate results didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

But the bipartisan budget deal left a number of other education programs without a dime, including the Teaching American History grants program, which has provided more than $1 billion to fuel professional development for K-12 history teachers since its inception in fiscal 2001. Also eliminated was the $27 million Foreign Language Assistance program, first established two decades ago.

“We are extremely disheartened that in the final budget deal, Congress zeroed out the funding for [foreign languages],” said Martha G. Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Alexandria, Va. “Now, there is no funding for foreign language K-12 programs from the U.S. Department of Education in an era when our nation’s language capacity is so greatly in need of strengthening.”

Ms. Abbott noted that some grant recipients are in the middle of multiyear commitments that will be cut short.

District Competitions

The fate of the federal Striving Readers program, first funded in fiscal 2010, had been in question after its budget was zeroed out for fiscal 2011.

In its first phase, the program provided about $10 million in grants to 46 states to devise statewide literacy plans. Following that, about three dozen states competed for larger grants to help bring those ideas to life in local communities.

In September, the Education Department awarded $180 million in grants to Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas to support local work consistent with the states’ literacy plans. Each of those states is expected to receive continued federal funding for an additional four years.

In Georgia, which won a $27 million Striving Readers grant for its first year, 30 districts, along with local partners, have applied for competitive grants from the state. A decision on the winners is expected next month.

Julie K. Morrill, Georgia’s manager for Striving Readers, said the effort is especially promising because of the push to focus on literacy across the early life span.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything birth through grade 12, across transitions,” she said.

Meanwhile, Louisiana received $28.5 million in September and is planning to award grants to districts in late March through a state competition.

Kerry Lassiter, a deputy state superintendent in the Louisiana education department, said the money can go for a variety of purposes, including professional development, salaries for literacy specialists, reading materials, and assessments.

“A large amount will be for professional learning, both for teachers and administrators,” Ms. Lassiter said.

René Greer, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana education department, added that the funding will “allow us to intensify our activities” in helping districts implement the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and also deal with any gaps in attending to the literacy needs of young children, particularly from birth to age 4.

Federal funding for Striving Readers in fiscal 2012 is $159 million.

Programs to help improve teaching in different academic disciplines saw cuts or were eliminated outright in the final pact.

The decision to abolish the Teaching American History grants program, long championed by the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., will create a great loss for history educators, said Andrew T. Mink, an outreach director at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, in Charlottesville.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Mr. Mink, who served as the program director on a number of the federal grants his university has been involved with. “It’s brought a new value and relevance for historic sites, historic resources” to inform instruction, he said of the program. “The whole conversation [among educators] of understanding the past and teaching that understanding has been accelerated over the last 11 years.”

The funding was roughly halved last year, to $46 million, but for many years the program provided nearly $120 million annually.

Other curriculum-related programs also took a hit in the final fiscal 2012 budget.

The Excellence in Economic Education program, which got $1.4 million last year, was scrapped, as was $1.2 million for civic education.

Math-Science Cut

Despite the strong rhetoric from across the political spectrum about the need to improve education in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the Education Department’s Mathematics and Science Partnership program saw its budget trimmed by $25 million, to $150 million.

And more than one-third of the $43 million budget was cut from the Advanced Placement Incentive grants program, which aims to increase the participation of low-income students in AP courses.

At the same time, the federal Arts in Education program saw only a slight cut, from $27 million to $25 million, and aid for the Education Department’s physical education program stayed about the same as last year, at $79 million.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as Literacy Wins, History Loses in Fiscal ’12 Federal Budget

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