Reading & Literacy

Obama Mum on Literacy Despite Big Cuts in Federal Aid

By Erik W. Robelen — March 09, 2011 2 min read
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As I’ve said here pretty often, President Obama loves to talk about math and science education. But given the recent news about big cuts to federal literacy aid, you’d think he might give a quick plug for good old, you know, readin’ and writin’.

And so, I decided to check out his speech yesterday at a public school in Boston. It was all about education, its importance, and about his determination to fight the push by congressional Republicans to slash education aid. Once again, he emphasized the need for improved math and science education repeatedly. But, to my knowledge, there was not one mention of literacy. That word, or “reading” or “writing” never came up. The same is true of his recent State of the Union Address, which also included a lot of talk of education, with considerable emphasis on math and science.

Who knows? Maybe the president feels that the importance of literacy is so obvious that it doesn’t need articulation. But at least some observers have argued to me that the issue doesn’t seem to be a very high priority for the Obama administration. And it could be that House Republicans picked up on that when they were looking for their first round of cuts for the current fiscal year. (I can tell you that, by contrast, former President George W. Bush talked about the need to improve reading all the time. And even while some of his plans proved rather controversial, he was prepared to put a lot of money behind the effort.)

The literacy programs wiped away as part of the stopgap spending bill enacted last week were all ones that President Obama has signaled were not priorities for him. He has proposed to replace them with a broader, competitive fund called Effective Teaching and Learning: Literacy. He requested $450 million for that new funding stream in fiscal 2011. The stopgap spending measure, of course, was all about cutting spending, so it did not replace them with a new literacy fund. And to my knowledge, there were not cuts to math and science education in the short-term deal to keep the government operating.

I should note that even while President Obama did agree to sign the stopgap spending bill with the cuts for literacy, it seems pretty clear that there were larger political forces at play that prompted that decision.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from Obama’s remarks yesterday at TechBoston.

“What’s needed is higher standards and higher expectations; more time in the classroom, and greater focus on subjects like math and science,” he said. “What’s needed are outstanding teachers and leaders like Skip who get more flexibility ... in exchange for more accountability. And all those ingredients are present here at TechBoston.”

The president also made clear in his speech that he would fight Republican plans to cut education spending.

Obama did say he is prepared to reduce government spending.

“But,” he was quick to add, “and I want everybody to pay attention, even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education. We cannot cut back on the very investments that will help our economy grow and our nation compete and make sure that these young people succeed.”

A plan put forward by Senate Democrats would restore one portion of the cuts for literacy, some $200 million for the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program.

What’s not clear is whether Obama will press hard to restore that funding, or perhaps push for a budget compromise that includes some money for the new literacy fund he envisions. If that’s his intention, he’s not talking about it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.