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Federal Aid for Literacy Programs Makes Comeback

The U.S. Department of Education sent word this week that it's inviting applicants for a slice of $29 million in aid to support childhood literacy and free book distribution efforts, with at least half the money designated to support "high-quality" school library projects. (Hat tip to the American Library Association for letting me know about this.)

The money comes from the new Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program. And yet, in some sense, this program is not really all that new.

That's because the Education Department previously had two separate programs, one for school libraries, the other for Reading Is Fundamental's work distributing free books and providing literacy support. Funding for both was zeroed out by Congress in fiscal 2011. The year before that, the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program received $19 million. Federal funding for Reading Is Fundamental was $25 million in fiscal 2010.

It's often said in Washington that once a federal program is created, it's very hard to get rid of it. Leaving aside any judgments about the value of these particular initiatives, the action by Congress to restore this aid seems to give some credence to that notion.

However, there are differences this time around. For one, the funding level for the new program's budget of $29 million is far less than the combined $44 million from its antecedents. Also, in the case of free book distribution, Reading Is Fundamental is no longer guaranteed the federal dollars. Instead, the program is subject to a competition for grants. My guess is there are other important differences, too, though I haven't had a chance to examine what they might be.

One clear component of the new program, spelled out in the Education Department's Federal Register notice, is that all proposed projects must be "supported by at least one study that meets the definition of scientifically valid research."

For his part, Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee on Education Funding, says Congress' action demonstrates the continued strong support for a federal role in this type of literacy work.

"It show that Congress considers funding for school libraries and other literacy programs important," he said.

Indeed, for fiscal 2012, Congress also provided $159 million for the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program, a program first created in fiscal 2010 which also received no funding in fiscal 2011. (However, in a quirk of the budget process, $180 million in federal aid from fiscal 2010 went out much later than usual, last fall.) That new program essentially replaces the federal Reading First program (which, at its height, received about $1 billion a year) and an adolescent literacy initiative.

"The argument some people use against these things is Title I is focused to a large extent on reading, but you still need some targeted funding for innovative programs, for nationally focused programs," Packer said.

In the Federal Register notice, the department provides an overview of the Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program.

"The U.S. Department of Education intends to support innovative programs that promote early literacy for young children, motivate older children to read, and increase student achievement by using school libraries, distributing free books to children and their families, and offering high-quality literacy activities," it says.

The notice identifies several "competitive preference priorities" for funding under the new program, including a focus on projects designed to: help turn around persistently low-performing schools; use high-quality digital tools to improve literacy; target early learning of high-need children; and target rural communities.

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