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Program shift may eliminate Starbase

– The reprieve for Starbase might be temporary.

A day after the U.S. Senate rejected legislation to eliminate the federal science and technology program for fifth-graders, the director of Starbase Indiana in Fort Wayne said Tuesday he had been told the White House plans to shift the program from the Department of Defense to the Department of Education.

“We’re under the impression that if it moves under the Department of Education, it would effectively dismantle the program because it would no longer be at the military installations nationwide,” Scott Liebhauser said in a phone interview.

A White House official would not confirm the plan, saying that details of President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal have not been released. Obama’s budget will be made public in early April.

But the office of Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., released a Feb. 15 letter he wrote to the White House Office of Management and Budget saying he had been told OMB might transfer Starbase to the Department of Education or the National Science Foundation.

Either shift “would likely kill an important and successful program,” Levin wrote to OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients.

Starbase Indiana is among nearly 80 academies at military bases that teach elementary-school students about STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The local lab is at the Air National Guard’s 122nd Fighter Wing on Ferguson Road, where Starbase activities have involved robotics, rocketry and 3-D computer-aided design.

Levin noted in his letter that 35 military installations are on a waiting list to join 76 bases that have developed Starbase academies since the program’s inception in 1992.

“The enthusiasm and expertise of military personnel is what makes the STARBASE program unique and exciting to elementary school students,” he wrote. “The transfer of the program to another agency would not only put funding at risk, it would undermine the core rationale for the program and the reason for its success.”

(The Pentagon capitalizes all the letters in Starbase. The Journal Gazette capitalizes all the letters in words only if they are abbreviations or acronyms, such STEM.)

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said last week in an interview that Starbase “has shown it has significant value” while operating “at a reasonable cost.”

The national program was supposed to receive roughly $21 million in fiscal 2013. Starbase Indiana has four full-time employees and a yearly budget of about $300,000.

The Senate on Monday excluded from its continuing appropriations resolution an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have eliminated funding for Starbase.

More than 800 students have attended the Fort Wayne academy since it opened in February 2012. Students typically go to the site one day a week for five weeks.

“It has been a very successful program,” Liebhauser said. “That’s why you’ll see a lot of bipartisan support for Starbase in general.”

He is encouraging supporters – which include the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce – to make their wishes known to the OMB.

“We’re optimistic,” Liebhauser said. “We’re not giving up.”

bfrancisco@jg.net

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