Bush education budget seeks boost for reading program

February 1, 2008 1:31:18 PM PST
In a year when many federal programs are in line for hefty budget cuts, President Bush is asking Congress to largely leave education alone, and seeking more money for a controversial reading initiative. The White House budget proposal being sent to Congress on Monday asks lawmakers to sign off on nearly $60 billion for education programs, according to a copy of the Education Department budget obtained Friday by The Associated Press. The amount equals what is being spent this year, without an increase to keep pace with inflation.

Among Bush's proposals for the upcoming budget year: a push for Congress to restore $600 million lawmakers cut from a reading program that serves low-income children.

The program, called Reading First, recently has received favorable reviews from state officials and others. But it also has been criticized by federal investigators for conflicts of interest and mismanagement.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a telephone interview Friday that there were problems with the program initially but that they had been addressed and that reading gains were being made by students served under the initiative.

The administration also is renewing a push for a $300 million proposal that would allow poor students to transfer to better public schools outside their district or to private schools, if their schools failed to meet benchmarks under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law or had low graduation rates.

Democrats are staunchly opposed to using federal dollars for private school vouchers and have rejected similar administration proposals in the past.

Spellings said it's unfair to force kids to stay in troubled schools. "When they are broken chronically, we have to do something different," she said.

Title I grants, the main source of federal funding for poor students, would get $14.3 billion, about a 3 percent increase from this year, under the administration's proposal. About half of the nation's schools, and two-thirds of elementary schools, receive Title I funding.

The administration proposes to spend about $11.3 billion for special education services for students with disabilities, an increase of roughly $330 million.

A program that helps fund merit-pay plans for teachers who boost student test scores would double, from about $100 million to $200 million. Teachers unions oppose linking paychecks to student scores.

In all, the administration is seeking to eliminate 47 education programs, to save about $3.3 billion. The administration says the programs are too small to have a national impact, aren't effective for other reasons, or get money from other sources.

They include programs to encourage arts in schools, bring low-income students on trips to Washington, and provide mental health services.

"Obviously, cuts are difficult to make," Spellings said. "But I think this is a responsible budget that sets priorities and that is aligned with the core mission and the core focus of No Child Left Behind."

The Education Department also administers programs that help students and their families pay for college.

The president is asking Congress to approve an increase of about $2.6 billion for the Pell Grant program for low-income college students. He is seeking to eliminate other programs, including the Perkins Loan program, which provides low-interest loans to needy students.