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Gifted Education Advocates Praise Leadership of Outgoing Sen. Mikulski

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U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland who announced Monday that she plans to retire in 2016 after 30 years in Congress, has been a dogged supporter of programs intended to identify and educate underrepresented populations in gifted education, advocates said.

Thanks to Mikulski's work, the federal government restored funding to the $10 million Jacob K. Javits grant program after three years of its absence from the U.S. Department of Education's budget, said Jane Clarenbach, the director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington. (The White House has proposed $9.7 million for the program for fiscal year 2016.)  And Mikulski has been one of the lead sponsors of the TALENT Act, which would add gifted students to the school, district, and state planning processes that are a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"Our most gifted children need our help just as much as our most vulnerable do. They need to be held to high standards and they need to be engaged," said Mikulski in a 2013 statement

"This is not a woman who said, 'I can support gifted kids' and then went away," Clarenbach said in a Monday interview. "She committed her own time and staff time to finding out what initiatives she can support."

Mikulski has met with gifted students and their families and talked personally with their teachers, Clarenbach said. And the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which identifies highly gifted learners around the country through a nationwide talent search, is in Baltimore, Mikulski's backyard.

Mikulski, 78, has been elected 10 times, both to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. She was the chairwoman of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, but lost that position when the Republicans won control of the Senate this year. She is also a senior member of the Senate education committee. 

Del Siegle, the director of the National Center for Research on Gifted Education located at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, said the restoration of the Javits funding is a "testament to the senator's tenacity and passion." That funding is used to develop programs that identify students who might not otherwise be considered for gifted programs. It also funds research into best practices in gifted education.

Funding has never been particularly high for the program—it topped out at a little over $11 million in 2002—but the money started to dwindle until it was cut altogether in 2011. In 2014, $5 million was restored, and in fiscal 2015, $10 million was appropriated. 

The program's focus on underrepresented populations was particularly meaningful to Mikulski, said Siegle, who is also a professor of gifted and talented education at the University of Connecticut. 

"She really understands that every kid needs to get a fair shake," Siegle said. "The only way our country is going to reach its potential is if all children get a chance to reach theirs." 

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., speaks during a news conference in the Fells Point section of Baltimore on Monday, where she announced she will retire after serving her current term. Mikulski is the longest-serving woman in Congress. —Steve Ruark/AP

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