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House Floats Plan to Keep Government Running, Scrap K-12 Programs

Again, good and bad news for fans of education spending.

The good news: The House Appropriations Committee has introduced a bill to keep the government afloat for the next two weeks. If the measure is approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Barack Obama, it would temporarily avert a shutdown, and give lawmakers a chance to continue negotiations on a bill to finance the government for the rest of fiscal year 2011, which ends on Sept. 30.

If you recall, the GOP-controlled House has already approved another bill that would fund the government until Sept. 30, but slice more than $61 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2011, including more than $5 billion from the U.S. Department of Education. Leaders in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, haven't been too thrilled with the cuts.

Under the latest House proposal, just about every program would be funded at fiscal year 2010 levels until March 18, with some notable exceptions, totaling about $4 billion.

The bad news: Some of those notable exceptions include education programs. The plan would scrap at least four of them and make other K-12 cuts.

Programs targeted for elimination include those that President Barack Obama sought to scrap under his budget proposal, and some that the administration had wanted to consolidate into broader funding streams.

Here's the confusing part: A press release put out late Friday by the House Appropriations Committee said that all the programs slated for elimination in the proposal were also put on the chopping block by Obama in his most recent budget request, which is actually for fiscal year 2012, beginning on Oct. 1. (I know, not easy keeping all the years straight.)

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, the GOP press release doesn't quite tell the whole story. It's true that Obama had wanted to essentially get rid of these smaller programs that the administration doesn't view as effective. But he wanted most of the money they're now receiving to stay in the Education Department and just become part of a bigger program, with a similar purpose.

The department was calling this "consolidation," and it wasn't clear whether Congress was going to go along with it or not. But if these programs really are eliminated, it means less money overall for the administration's plans.

For instance, the administration had proposed a $383 million new, broad funding stream, aimed at improving reading and writing, called "Effective Teaching and Learning: Literacy." The program would be made up of six smaller programs financed at a total of $413 million right now.

But the GOP measure proposes totally getting rid of two of those programs: Striving Readers, funded at $250 million, a comprehensive literacy program, and Even Start, a family literacy program funded at $66 million.

If the money for those programs goes away, that could mean less for the administration's bigger literacy program (if it is created) and less for the department overall.

Similarly, the GOP proposal would scrap the $88 million Smaller Learning Communities program, which both the GOP and the Obama administration say hasn't been found to be very helpful in boosting student achievement.

The Obama administration had wanted the smaller learning community money to become part of a new pot of funds called "Expanding Educational Outcomes." It wanted $372 million for that program, which would have been comprised of four smaller programs financed at a total of $409 million right now.

The money would basically have been used to support charter schools, magnet schools, and public school choice. Again, losing the $88 million the Smaller Learning Community program was getting means there would be less money for those activities overall, should Congress decide to take the administration up on its consolidation proposal.

Also on the target list is the Leveraging Educational Assistance Parternships or LEAP, program, financed at $64 million. This was basically to encourage states to establish need-based scholarships, and the administration found it had already accomplished that goal. So, as far as the Obama administration goes, it would seem like this is a pretty non-controversial target.

The measure would also make other reductions, including a $229 million cut to the department's fund for Innovation and Improvement. It seems to me that at least a big chunk of that would likely be from the Fund for the Improvement of Education, which is basically a slush fund for earmarks and was financed at $125 million in fiscal year 2010.

[UPDATE, Feb. 28: Some of the earmarks that would be eliminated for this year under the two-week-keep-the-government's-lights-on proposal include: B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarship Program Thurgood Marshall Legal Scholarships Program, Tribally Controlled Postsecondary Vocational Institutions, Arts in Education, Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, National Writing Project, Reading is Fundamental, and Teach for America.]

The temporary measure would also cut special education by $22 million, Rehabilitation Services by $5 million, and Safe Schools and Citizenship Education by $32 million.

The bill could be on the floor of the House as early as Tuesday. And apparently, Senate Democrats are also trying to find ways to compromise on a measure that would keep the government running while lawmakers hash out their very different visions for spending, including on education.

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