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Ed. Dept. Invites Applicants for $189 Million in Literacy Aid

The U.S. Department of Education last week officially put out word that it's accepting applications for $189 million in grants for a new literacy initiative. Forty-six states have been working on statewide literacy plans for children ages zero to grade 12 in anticipation of pursuing one of the competitive grants under the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program. (Those states received a share of $10 million from the department to get started.)

The grant announcement comes as most federal aid for literacy at the Education Department—including for Striving Readers—was wiped out as part of a stopgap spending bill enacted earlier this month. Here's my big-picture story on what's going on there.

A little confused? Well, the $189 million is actually money Congress appropriated in fiscal 2010 but the Education Department has still not obligated. (Some observers have complained that the agency has dragged its feet in moving forward with the new program.) For the moment, that money is still intact. The cuts enacted earlier this month are for fiscal 2011, which began in October.

Also, to further confuse you, even though President Barack Obama signed the stopgap spending bill, Senate Democrats have already signaled their intention to try to restore most of the Striving Readers aid for the current fiscal year. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.

However, the $189 million is apparently still in jeopardy. That's because a larger fiscal 2011 budget plan passed in February by the Republican-controlled House would go back and retroactively strip away that $189 million. After all, as I noted, the Education Department has yet to obligate it in the form of grants to states. Some observers suggest the Obama administration itself may have opened the door for this step. Last summer, the White House agreed to sacrifice $50 million of the original $250 million in fiscal 2010 for Striving Readers to help pay for an education-jobs package.

Even more confused? Simply put, future funding for Striving Readers is in question. And so is the $189 million in grants the Education Department just announced.

Here's another piece to confuse matters. Keep in mind that the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program is NOT the same thing as Striving Readers. The latter is a research pilot program spearheaded by the Bush administration that focused specifically on adolescent literacy. The new program aims to build on that work, taking lessons learned and promoting a broader agenda of literacy from birth until high school graduation. It was actually created as part of the fiscal 2010 appropriations process, which is an unusual way to launch a program.

Anyway, the department said last week that it will award anywhere from three to 18 grants to states under the new Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program. (Larger states who win would get a lot more money.) The grants will be for a four-year period, and would range from as little as $3 million to as much as $70 million.

In a letter to states, the department explains: "Activities should align with a comprehensive state literacy plan designed to improve student outcomes and have the characteristics of an effective literacy program, such as professional development, screening and assessment, targeted interventions for students reading below grade level, and other research-based methods of improving classroom instruction and practice."

The department says that a "comprehensive" literacy plan includes preliteracy, reading and writing skills for all students, including disadvantaged students, limited-English proficient students, and students with disabilities, from birth to grade 12.

The closing date for applications is May 9, assuming, of course, that the money hasn't been stripped away by then.

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