Sunday, January 9, 2005

The U.S. Department of Education is choking on congressional pork, struggling with mandates to spend about $400 million on 1,175 specified local projects as earmarked by lawmakers in the omnibus appropriations bill enacted Dec. 8.

“It is going to be a significant challenge to process and monitor all of these earmarks,” Susan Aspey, the department’s press secretary, told The Washington Times.

In addition to lacking enough staff to administer and oversee properly the large increase in directed federal grants, “Congress hasn’t given us the authority to ask a lot of questions of earmark recipients,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the department’s associate assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement.

The spending bill appropriated $59.7 billion to the department for fiscal 2005.

Mr. Petrilli said Congress increased his office’s number of mandated spending projects — popularly known as “pork” — by more than half, from 450 in 2004 to 700 in the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

The practice of members of Congress to load up must-pass legislation with billions of dollars worth of spending projects to benefit recipients in their states and congressional districts has been criticized for decades.

The 1,175 mandated projects take up 40 pages of small type in four lists in a massive conference report accompanying the 663-page omnibus spending bill.

The projects range from school district teacher training and curriculum development in specified areas to after-school programs. Money also was mandated for groups pushing everything from the teaching of Jewish history and specific arts disciplines to weekend programs for children with disabilities.

The largest spending mandate is $20 million to expand a “school-reform” program called Project GRAD USA, which has its headquarters in Houston and has received three successive $20 million earmarks, thanks to Rep. Ralph Regula, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the department.

Project GRAD USA is a private nonprofit company that helps 12 urban school districts in Ohio and seven other states increase their high school graduation rates and prepare students for college, according to the organization’s Web site.

Also, $18 million — the second-largest earmark — went to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education for low-performing schools, thanks to Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations labor, health and human services, and education subcommittee.

Mr. Regula also ensured further funding for the Education Leaders Council, a conservative school-reform group that became a federal contractor in 2002. ELC became dependent on federal funding under then-Chief Executive Officer Lisa Graham Keegan, a former superintendent of public instruction in Arizona.

The ELC has operated with congressional earmarks totaling $23.3 million. The spending bill gives ELC six earmarks for an additional $9.7 million to expand its federally funded “Following the Leaders” (FTL) technology project to computerize curricula in selected public school districts in 12 states in partnership with Achievement Technologies Inc. of Newton, Mass.

Mrs. Keegan last year canceled a federally funded evaluation of the effectiveness of FTL.

The current congressional earmarks mandate $5 million for ELC’s further administration of FTL, $3 million to expand the school-technology program in Iowa, $1 million in Alaska, $500,000 in Tennessee, $100,000 in Rhode Island and $72,000 in West Virginia.

FTL’s $144,000-a-year director, Faye P. Taylor, previously was education commissioner in Tennessee and a member of ELC’s board of directors when Mrs. Keegan hired her to run the FTL program.

Theodor Rebarber, ELC’s current chief executive, said 600 public schools participating in FTL “report that it is helping to raise student achievement as well as demonstrating the power of technology in supporting standards-based instruction. We think that Congress has heard the same message from these FTL schools, as ELC has helped them to communicate it.”

Mr. Rebarber declined to disclose who lobbied for the current ELC earmarks and who in Congress ensured they were included in the omnibus spending bill. Mr. Regula did not respond to inquiries about the earmarks.

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