Among the first organizations in California to feel the pain of Washington's drive to slash federal spending is the Berkeley-based National Writing Project, which has issued layoff notices to 60 percent of its employees.
As California Watch noted in March, the project was dealt a major setback when Congress and President Obama agreed to eliminate the $25.6 million the project receives annually from the federal government.
Those cuts have now been approved, forcing the organization to send layoff notices to 45 members of its staff, effective in June. Most are based in its Berkeley offices.
The program works with both college professors and K-12 teachers to enhance techniques to improve the quality of writing in schools and colleges, offering workshops and other training programs at regional centers on campuses across the nation.
The program began as the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley in 1974. It has since expanded to 17 sites across California, and to more than 200 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Its centerpiece is a four-week intensive summer program training 3,300 teachers each year to be more effective writing instructors. The network of teachers trained by the project since its inception now exceeds 70,000.
Along with the National Writing Project, $24.8 million in federal funding for Reading Is Fundamental, which claims to be the largest nonprofit literacy program in the country, was also eliminated.
The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged the National Writing Project to apply for funds through a new competitive funding program. Funds would be awarded during the current fiscal year ending September 30. But Washington said that only about $25 million are available through that funding source, far less than the total amount that has been cut from her program and others such as Teach for America and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards which are also eligible to compete for the funds.
Sharon Washington, National Writing Project executive director, said she is now stepping up her organization's efforts to get funding from foundations and private sources. In the meantime, she said, the reduction of staff has forced her to cancel several national gatherings that would have brought together directors of the project's multiple sites around the country to plan strategies and share knowledge.
Supporters of the program say that it has become an innocent victim in the Congressional war against federal "earmarks," funds which Congress typically appropriates for a local project pushed by a one or more home state lawmakers. As an earmark, a project does not have to compete with other programs to receive funding.
The National Writing Project supporters say it is not a local project, but operates in multiple states and communities. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, sent a letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asking that the project be reclassified so it is no longer viewed as a "an earmark. The letter, signed by 10 other senators, said the National Writing Project "is quite different from Congressionally directed spending items, which only benefit a specific state, congressional district or region, and change from year-to-year."
But at this point, there is no sign that Congress will shift direction and rescind its early budget-cutting moves.