On May 7, President Barack Obama told the press that he was attempting to negotiate $17 billion in program cuts. Among the programs that he slated for abolishment are the National Institute for Literacy and Even Start, a family literacy program.
A senior administration official announced on May 6, that Even Start was ineffective in improving the literacy levels of young children:
"And then finally as another example of a program that the administration supports the goals of but that the evidence suggests is not working very well -- Even Start. Even Start is a early education -- early childhood education program -- and obviously the President and the administration feel very strongly that early childhood education done in a high-quality way is crucially important and have provided additional funds both through the Recovery Act and in the budget that we will be releasing tomorrow for early childhood education.However, a variety of studies of Even Start have suggested that that program does not work well. The most recent evaluation, for example, found out of 41 outcomes that were measured between families in the program and families that were not, that there was only a difference in outcomes on 38 out of -- I'm sorry, there was no difference on 38 out of the 41 outcomes.So we are proposing that Even Start be eliminated even while we are investing in other programs that do work, including Early Head Start and Head Start."
On May 7, the President himself made the following remarks as the explanation for ending the National Institute for Literacy:
"Some programs may have made sense in the past -- but are no longer needed in the present. Other programs never made any sense; the end result of a special interest's successful lobbying campaign. Still other programs perform functions that can be conducted more efficiently, or are already carried out more effectively elsewhere in the government....
"Another example is the National Institute for Literacy. Now, I strongly support initiatives that promote literacy -- it's critical -- but I oppose programs that do it badly. Last year, nearly half of the funding in this program was spent on overhead. So we've proposed cutting the $6 million for this program in favor of supporting literacy efforts within the Department of Education which use tax dollars more effectively and wisely."
These are just proposals, of course, but along with the recent cuts to Reading First, literacy education has been taking it on the chin. Obviously we'll have to wait to see if these latest proposals lead to real budget losses in reading. President George W. Bush tried to do away with Even Start for the same reasons, and Democrats in Congress howled about his lack of caring for the needs of adults and children living in poverty. Of course, they won't cast Obama as a Grinch for doing exactly the same thing, but that doesn't mean they'll give him the cuts he wants either (Congressional Democrats haven't really gone along with the Obama agenda at all, except when it has overlapped with their own).
The NIFL cuts are different. It doesn't provide funds for program delivery to students, and without a full-time director (and a board whose terms have expired--including mine), it has neither constituents nor supporters likely to step up to save it. Originally, proponents of NIFL put it into the law so that there would be a coordinating agency for the diverse efforts of the federal government. There was a lot of dissatisfaction with programs like those offered by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE); too many people not reached by the programs, too much overlap between federal programs, and among federal and state programs, etc. The idea was that NIFL would study the system, monitor the delivery, and provide leadership since it was to be operated directly under the Secretaries of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. It was even required to report directly to Congress.
Sadly, NIFL never took on the duties envisioned for it and ended up doing odd jobs on literacy (some of them good, some not so good, but no real programmatic responsibilities like those envisioned for it in the enabling legislation). They recognized that no one wants a watch dog looking over their shoulder, so they gave into the resistance and just didn't bother.
The Clinton administration tolerated NIFL, as long as it didn't try to do it's job. Although NIFL is supposed to have a board of advisors with staggered terms, the Clintons left office with all of the advisor posts open making sure that no continuity could be accomplished.
The Bush administration both made it better and worse. In NCLB, Bush expanded NIFL responsibilities giving it duties for getting research-based literacy information to the schools and the public. It carried out those duties spectacularly well, showing an ability to do high caliber work without as much overhead and bureaucracy as the departments themselves. (This was useful because NIFL could respond more quickly and do some things the departments couldn't do.) It's finest hour came when it resisted great administration pressure to release misleading information to help those who were corrupting Reading First.
But the Bushies did some things that kept NIFL from ever righting itself. Instead of having NIFL continue to report to the Secretaries as it was supposed to, they kicked it to OVAE. Yes, that's right: the major agency that was supposed to be watched by NIFL was the one that NIFL had to gain approval from. NIFL couldn't even release its report to Congress without OVAE liking the report. Then Bush, too, left office, without making sure that NIFL either had a director or an operating board. Obama could rebuild it, of course, but that would take effort, and so Obama wants to dump it. Why would he want a watchdog agency causing problems within his administration.
The problems that NIFL was supposed to address still exist. Adult literacy programs continue to be funded by Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, the Bureau of Prisons, and Homeland Security. These programs are failing to address the needs of most older Americans who have inadequate literacy skills. There is no coordinated policy to ensure that these programs, along with those funded by the states, are making a dent in the nation's adult literacy needs.
Despite massive and unprecedented increases in government spending, including in educational spending on Title I and other programs with poor track records, Obama and Congressional leaders have continued to hack away at federal support for literacy. Let's hope that in the next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that some of that money will be put back. Fingers crossed.