The Earmarks Shuffle

January 16, 2012 | By Thompson Education | Post a Comment

(This post originally appeared on Title I-Derland, Thompson’s blog on federal K-12 education, and was written by Chuck Edwards, senior executive director for Thompson’s education products.) Ever since earmarks — funds directed to named grantees — started cropping up in appropriations bills during the Reagan administration, there have been periodic attempts to eliminate the practice. But, as holders of the national purse-strings, it is hard for members of Congress to resist the temptation to direct funding to causes they favor. Even as earmarks are swept away, determined legislators will seek another way of financially supporting worthy causes.

Thanks to a bipartisan House and Senate commitment, the 2011 appropriations battles resulted in a near-total purge of earmarks. But, due to strong support on Capitol Hill, some of the organizations that lost their earmarks in the 2011 appropriations battles may find offsetting funding elsewhere in the U.S. Department of Education (ED) through an alternative, time-honored technique employed by friendly legislators.

This involves taking the money freed up by eliminating an organization’s earmark and moving it into a discretionary program where that organization has a distinct competitive advantage.

One noteworthy shuffle involves the high-profile cuts to longstanding earmarks for three national professional development organizations: the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards ($10.7 million), Teach for America ($18 million) and the National Writing Project ($25.6 million). The FY 2011 appropriations bill enacted in April eliminated all three earmarks. But, at the same time, Congress created a new 1 percent set-aside — $24.7 million — under the Title II, Part A state formula program for “competitive awards for teacher training or professional enhancement activities to national not-for-profit organizations.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee subsequently issued a bill summary that specifically stated that programs such as the National Board, Teach for America and the National Writing Project would be eligible for the funds. As the National Board noted on its website, “the ‘professional enhancement’ language is pulled directly from the purpose of the Advanced Credentialing program, the budget account that has funded [the] National Board exclusively in recent years.”

Both the National Board and the National Writing Project are among those that have applied for the funding competition, announced Sept. 8 in the Federal Register. It probably will not surprise anyone if those organizations are among the winners. And Congress boosted the set-aside to 1.5 percent — $37 million — in the FY 2012 funding bill enacted in December. According to the Federal Register announcement, the FY 2012 funds may be combined with the FY 2011 funds to support applicants not funded in the first round — more than offsetting the amount these organizations lost in the earmark elimination.

Another earmark converted to a putatively competitive program involves Reading Is Fundamental (RIF). This hallowed child book-giveaway organization lost its $24.8 million earmark in FY 2011. But in the FY 2012 bill there is a new $28.7 million program “for competitive awards to national not-for-profit organizations or school libraries for providing books and childhood literacy activities to children and families living in high need communities.”

At least half of these funds must be awarded to school libraries, a set-aside that will serve to partially replace the $19.1 million Literacy in School Libraries line item also cut in FY 2011. The funding for this new program alone would not be enough to offset the loss of RIF’s earmark. But, as a preeminent national child literacy organization, RIF is a good bet to receive some of the funds. In fact, RIF’s President and CEO Carol Rasco has publicly applauded the congressional action, stating, “We look forward to working with the Department of Education as details of the competition are finalized.”

Certainly, the conversion to a competitive program introduces a discipline lacking in an earmark. It will be interesting to see if all of these organizations can recover their funding when presented with a higher bar.


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