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Senate Panel Breathes Life Into Moribund Literacy Programs

A key Senate committee this week approved legislation that would attempt to restore federal funding for literacy programs that was essentially wiped out in fiscal 2011.

For the big picture, check out my colleague Alyson Klein's post over at Politics K-12. The bill was approved this week on a party-line vote of 16-14 by the Senate Appropriations Committee, with all Republicans opposed. Total discretionary funding for the Department of Education, at $68 billion, would stay about the same as in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30.

The most notable development on the literacy front is that the Senate panel would provide $182 million to restore the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, which received no federal aid in the fiscal 2011 budget. This is a broad-based literacy program that essentially took the place of the controversial Reading First program, but with a far wider reach (even if its budget is a mere shadow of Reading First, which at its height received about $1 billion per year).

"Funds will be used by states to implement their statewide literacy plans, which address activities from birth through 12th grade," the Senate committee says in a press release. The aid "will support programs that advance literacy skills through professional development, screening and assessment, targeted interventions for students reading below grade level, and other research-based methods of improving classroom instruction and practice."

Earlier this month, the Education Department announced that six states had won grants under the Striving Readers program, though the agency relied on funds not spent from fiscal 2010 to pay for it.

In addition, as Alyson explains, the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program would receive $15 million as part of a set-aside in a flexible fund aimed at improving literacy. The other $15 million could go to other literacy programs, such as Reading Is Fundamental, which lost its funding in fiscal 2011.

For background on the cuts to federal literacy aid in fiscal 2011, check out this EdWeek story.

Meanwhile, the Senate panel would provide nearly $700 million to continue the federal Race to the Top program. As we've written, that federal competition has supported an array of activities to improve education, including support for common standards in math and English. Also, we've seen interesting examples of states pursuing approaches to target STEM education, including with the development of new STEM-focused schools. (We recently provided a closer look at STEM-focused schools.)

Also, the Senate plan would provide about $150 million to continue the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, program. Quite a few of the projects supported through this program have targeted dimensions of the curriculum, from STEM and literacy to arts education.

Not surprisingly in these tight fiscal times, not all programs escaped the budget axe in the Senate bill. At least one curriculum-related program, the Foreign Language Assistance program, would see its funding cut altogether, according to Politics K-12. It received $26 million for the current fiscal year. (I have not seen a full list of programs that were cut or eliminated in the Senate bill. For instance, I'm certainly curious to see how STEM education fared.)

Of course, all the numbers in this budget bill need to be taken with a grain of salt. First, the full Senate will need to work its will. And then, with Republicans controlling the House, you can bet that the companion budget bill that emerges from that chamber will look a lot different.

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