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Senate Panel Votes to Freeze Funding for Key K-12 Programs

K-12 education - including money for disadvantaged children and special education - would see stagnant funding under a measure approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday.

The bill, which was approved on party-line vote of 16-14, aims to reverse some of the cuts to K-12 education programs in the current budget for fiscal year 2011, which ends Sept. 30. The bill would give national non-profit organizations that lost funds—such as the National Writing Project and Reading is Fundamental—a chance to compete for new funds.

Campaign 2012And it would provide another year of funding for Striving Readers, a comprehensive literacy program, which received no new money in the fiscal 2011 budget. The Obama administration wanted to consolidate the program into a bigger funding stream aimed at boosting literacy -and House Republicans cited that decision in targeting the program for elimination.

But, the U.S. Department of Education was able to finance new grants for the program, this calendar year despite the cut, using funding left over from fiscal year 2010. The money included in the bill passed Wednesday, $182 million, would help ensure that those grants - which are spread out over three to five years - remain funded.

Another winner was the Promise Neighborhood program, which would get $60 million, up from $29 million in fiscal year 2011. The program - which is modeled on New York City's Harlem Children's Zone - helps communities develop education programs that incorporate wrap-around services, such as pre-kindergarten and mental health.

Still, most programs would see level funding - or cuts. Overall, the U.S. Department of Education would get $68.43 billion, a tiny increase from to $68.35 billion in fiscal year 2011.

"This bill was difficult to write," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panel that oversees K-12 spending. He said that the fiscal year 2011 measure, which eliminated 46 programs totaling more than $1.3 billion "cut all the fat and went into the bone. ... In this bill, we got into the marrow." But he said the bill preserves every American's "right to a good education and job skills."

But Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the bill "does not make the cuts necessary. ... Excessive spending is not going to right our fiscal ship."

The bill would provide new money for the Obama administration's top priority - the Race to the Top grant competition, which would be funded at nearly $700 million. And, for the first time, districts would be able to compete for the funds, not just states, per the Obama administration's request.

Under the bill, the administration could use the Race to the Top money for K-12 education, as it did with the first round two rounds of the competition, held in 2010. Or it could choose to administer a competition to improve early learning, as it did this in a fresh round of the program this calendar year.

The bill also included nearly $150 million for the Investing in Innovation grant program, which provides grants to scale up promising practices at the district level.

But it would trim another administration priority, the Teacher Incentive Fund, which allocates grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs. The TIF would receive $300 million, down from nearly $400 million in fiscal year 2011.

And a handful of programs would be eliminated, including Voluntary Public School Choice, which got $25 million in fiscal year 2011, and the Foreign Language Assistance program, which got $26 million in fiscal year 2011.

The measure would include flat-funding for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, which would be financed at $15.7 billion, the same level as in fiscal year 2011. And it would also include level funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which would receive nearly $11.5 billion.

The measure also seeks to give national non-profit organizations that lost their funding in fiscal year 2011 an opportunity to compete for new money. For instance, the bill includes a $30 million set-aside in a flexible fund aimed at improving education for literacy programs.

Half of that money would go to improve school libraries, which previously were funded under a separate $15 million program that was scrapped in the fiscal year 2011 budget. The other $15 million could go to literacy programs, giving some programs that lost money last year - such as Reading is Fundamental - a new shot at federal funds.

And teacher training programs that also lost all their federal funding in the fiscal year 2011 budget - such as Teach for America and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards - would also get to a chance to try for grants.

The bill would set aside 5 percent of the Improving Teacher Quality State grants - the main federal program for teachers - for a competition aimed at financing national teacher training and professional programs.

In fiscal year 2011, Congress set aside just 1 percent of the teacher training funds for the program. But the Senate committee would boost that amount.

The push for holding back 5 percent of the teacher funds had the backing of more than 50 House members, including Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, who sent a letter to lawmakers overseeing K-12 spending on the House side. It was also championed Chiefs for Change, a coalition of ten top state education officers, including Tony Bennett, Indiana's superintendent of Public Instruction, and Deborah Gist, Rhode Island's education commissioner.

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