Budget Would Trim Funds for 'Even Start'

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President Bush's budget proposes deep cuts in Even Start, a popular program that helps teach parents to read and speak English. Parents who can read can help their children with schoolwork and promote reading.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's hear about where some of your tax money is going. In his 2008 budget, President Bush targets about 150 government programs that he says are a waste of taxpayer money. He wants to eliminate all of them for a saving of about $12 billion.

NPR's Elaine Korry reports on one expense the president says we can all do without: $111 million for a national family literacy program called Even Start.

ELAINE KORRY: For six years, the president has tried to kill this program. The administration claims Even Start never lived up to its promise to help improve literacy in poor families. Robert Shea is with the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Mr. ROBERT SHEA (Office of Management and Budget, White House): Three evaluations of the program showed that people weren't making the kind of gains we hoped, and that the money from the program might be better utilized in other areas.

KORRY: Even Start has been around for nearly 20 years. Early assessment showed parents and children in the program made some progress. But, according to Shea, the gains were no better than for a control group not enrolled in Even Start.

Mr. SHEA: Because the program wasn't achieving its goals, we found it overall, to be ineffective.

KORRY: But Even Start parents in San Francisco say the program is working for them.

Unidentified Woman #1: What do you want to do on Friday?

Unidentified Woman #2: Clean the house.

KORRY: A drab trailer is plunked down on the edge of the playground at Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Inside, infants are nursing and toddlers are playing while about 30 parents, mostly mothers, are trying to master a new language.

Ms. VICTORIA RAMIREZ (Enrolled in Even Start): How about, what are you going to do on Saturday?

KORRY: Unlike the much bigger and better known Head Start, Even Start holds classes for adults. Parents who can't read English are hard pressed to help their children in school, and that's the point of Even Start - investing in parents' reading skills will pay off in better grades for their kids.

Ms. RAMIREZ: My name is Victoria Ramirez, and I have three children.

KORRY: Ramirez has been studying English here four mornings a week since September. She's progressed to the point that she can read picture books to her youngest child, and can participate in parent conferences at school for her other two.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Most of the meetings are in English. But I don't speak English, how I can talk to their teachers? For me, it's really very important.

KORRY: Parents here are baffled by the government's stance. Even Start already had its budget slashed last year. California had to close dozens of individual Even Start sites. Lucia Perez Barrow, director of San Francisco's last remaining program, says only the state's top rated Even Start sites survived. Parents here are tested every year. And Barrow says they have to reach tough goals to remain in the free classes.

Ms. LUCIA PEREZ BARROW (Director, Even Start, San Francisco): There's lots of tools in place that really make the programs accountable.

KORRY: The Office of Management and Budget never evaluated this particular site. Overall, I found Even Start results varied widely from state to state. Owen Bee(ph) says there are better early education options for children and ESL, or adult education classes, already teach parents to read. Granted, says Barrow, but there's a crucial difference: Even Start focuses on entire families. Classes are held at neighborhood schools where mothers can bring their infants and toddlers. According to Barrow, the parents here chose this program for a reason.

Ms. BARROW: If we didn't offer them what they need to learn their English, they wouldn't be here. They'd be somewhere else, because if we waste their time, they leave.

KORRY: Even Start's current budget is a tiny fraction of one percent of the president's over all spending plan. Advocates hope it will be spared, but virtually every program on the chopping block has supporters hoping for the same thing.

Elaine Korry, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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