Grants for Gifted Children Face Major Threat From Budget Ax

"My father always told me education is everything," said Kelvin Polanco, 12, a math and science whiz at Mott Hall School in Harlem who is among the children who would be affected if grants for gifted children lose their funding. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

NEW YORK -- In special sessions carved out of their lunch period, 27 sixth-graders at Mott Hall School in Harlem learned all they could this year about spina bifida, a severe birth defect that can be prevented if women take folic acid, a B vitamin, before and during pregnancy.

To spread the word, they conceived a "Folic Acid Awareness Week," spoke with relatives and neighbors, and taped a public service announcement with a jingle that goes, "Before you have a baby, you must take Vitamin B . . . "

The nine-week project was funded by the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, which serves bright kids from low-income families. Because of its narrow reach and relatively small size -- it received $11 million in funding this year -- the program is a perennial target for the budget ax. President Bush proposed terminating the program in his fiscal 2006 budget, and the House provided no new funding for Javits grants in an education spending bill it passed in June.

Advocates are worried. "It's been in peril every year," said Jim Carroll, a Syracuse University education professor and recipient of numerous Javits grants, including the one funding the Mott Hall community service project. But this is the most serious threat yet to the continuation of the program, he said.

Scores of federal programs must be cut back or eliminated this year, under the strict budget guidelines that Congress put in place to restrain spending growth. The administration's budget proposed more than 150 reductions and eliminations in non-defense discretionary programs in a bid to save about $20 billion in 2006.

The fate of the Javits program probably will hinge on whether Congress holds fast against the special pleadings of advocates for the targeted programs. Just about every initiative on the books has powerful patrons and grateful recipients.

The campaign to save the grants is already rolling. Last week, Carroll e-mailed his onetime high school student Terence R. McAuliffe and asked the former Democratic National Committee chairman to contact Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) on behalf of the program. Carroll later talked by phone with a Clinton staff member, who assured him the senator would try to protect the program. The National Association for Gifted Children urged its members to write and call senators.

Education for gifted students is also a pet cause of Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose interest dates to the early 1970s, when he was education chairman in the Iowa House.

Grassley gathered 26 signatures from Republican and Democratic colleagues to ensure that the Senate's version of the 2006 education bill includes money for the Javits program.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had a tough time saying no to a number of causes when it approved its fiscal 2006 spending bill Thursday for the Health, Labor and Education departments. Technically, the panel stayed within its budget, approving $141 billion in discretionary spending. But subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) used bookkeeping maneuvers to free up an additional $4 billion, including another $11 million for Javits.

However, Specter's plan is likely to meet fierce opposition in the House.

C. Todd Jones, the Education Department's associate deputy secretary for budget, said there are no particular complaints about the Javits program. "The administration can't support continued funding for everything that's gone before," he said. "At a time of war, at a time of increased needs in homeland security . . . not all programs can continue, and this is one of those programs."

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