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Federal agriculture, education programs among first to face budget cuts

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:25 PM

These, apparently, were the worst ideas in Washington.

An Agriculture Department program was supposed to bring broadband access to rural areas that didn't have it. Instead, it often brought broadband to suburbs that did.

An Education Department program spent $911 million to create schools-within-schools but achieved only "modest or neutral" academic improvement.

Another education program - designed to help parents and children learn reading together - spent $1.6 billion. But a study found it had little effect.

And another education program spent $157 million to help older children read. The result? "No difference in performance," one study said.

Republicans and Democrats are not in harmony about much of the federal budget, but they have now agreed that these things shouldn't be in it. They slashed the programs in a short-term budget deal that was approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama on Wednesday.

Watchdog groups call it a start.

But they say this move is less a display of the "new" Washington's budget-cutting bravery than a revelation of the old Washington's inertia: These programs had survived for years, despite persistent troubles.

"It's really what happens next that will show whether they're serious" about cutting the budget, said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "These are the easy ones."

The budget deal, which will put off a government shutdown for at least two weeks, includes $4 billion in spending cuts. A few Democrats raised objections to the reductions, arguing that they will shortchange education.

The bill passed 335 to 91 in the House, and 91 to 9 in the Senate.

Among these reductions - the first casualties of this term's congressional budget fight - four items stood out that together would have cost $433 million. Over the years, they have demonstrated how hard it is to kill a federal program.

And they aren't dead yet.

Broadband Direct Loan Subsidy: Since 2001, the Agriculture Department has given loans to providers who said they would bring broadband access to rural areas. Congress has appropriated more than $90 million for the effort.

But it has not done its intended job, according to reports from the department's inspector general.

In 2009, the inspector general found that loans had paid for broadband installations in more than 140 communities near cities, including suburbs of Chicago and Las Vegas. And 77 percent of the chosen sites already had broadband through another provider.

The bill cut $29 million that the program was supposed to receive this year.

But terminating funding does not mean terminating the program. The Agriculture Department says it still has enough money to keep it going.

This week, a spokesman said the department is writing new program rules.

"It is expected that these changes will be considered responsive to the concerns raised in previous reviews of the program," the spokesman said in an e-mail.

Striving Readers: This Education Department program, first funded in 2006, is aimed at middle and high school students who can't read well.

One sign of its troubled prospects might have been that the name of one of its literacy programs was misspelled.

"Xtreme Reading" taught students to "Xpect to Achieve."

Budget documents show that $157 million has been spent on the Striving Readers program. But results seem dismal: A progress report from Newark, posted on the Education Department's Web site, found "no difference in performance levels" between students who were in the program and those who weren't.

In Chicago? "No detectable overall impacts on reading performance."

In his budget, Obama proposed funding the program but consolidating its operations with other literacy efforts. But now, the two-week spending bill eliminated the funding, too: $250 million.

An Education Department spokesman said the agency has enough money to keep operating for now but could still ask Congress's permission to consolidate Striving Readers into a larger literacy program.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who heads a Senate subcommittee overseeing school spending, said that he thinks Striving Readers does valuable work and that he will seek to restore its funding in a later education bill.

"When are we going to learn that we need to stop eating our seed corn?" he said in a statement. "When you cut education, that's what it amounts to - hurting kids, especially the neediest kids."

Smaller Learning Communities: This Education Department program, which first gave funding in 2000, pays for large high schools to create smaller sub-schools, such as "freshman academies," or centers focused on career training.

But, in 2008, a study found that "early changes in schoolwide academic outcomes . . . were modest or neutral."

At that point, the federal government already had spent $600 million on the program. In the next two years, it spent $155 million more.

Obama also asked for this program to be merged with others. The bill cut off the $88 million it was set to receive this year.

Even Start: This Education Department program was aimed at parents who could not read in English: It would teach them and their children at the same time.

But a 2003 study found that families who were in the program did no better academically than those who were not.

In the years since, the program received more than $600 million from the government.

This year, Obama said he planned to consolidate it with other education programs. But Congress voted to cut the $66 million that would fund it.

In Arlington County, the Even Start program at Barcroft Elementary helps 40 families - teaching parents in one room, and children in another. Marilyn Faris Scholl, who oversees the program, said it may shrink considerably if it has to run solely on county funding.

"It would break my heart if it went away," she said.

But not all is lost. Faris Scholl said the program has survived previous budget scares: President George W. Bush tried to cut it, but Congress protected it.

"Gosh, I guess I'd better contact my congressman, huh?" she said.

fahrenthold@washpost.com

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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