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State and Local Educators Advised To Control Block-Grant Decisions

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Washington--The new education block grants are a "political football" that state departments of education and local school systems risk fumbling to state legislators and governors around the country unless they act quickly.

That was the assessment of the state and local education officials who spoke last week to federal-program coordinators meeting here under the auspices of the National School Boards Association. The officials urged participants to play an active role in the process being created to control those block grants.

Programs Merged

The Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ecia) merged 42 categorical education programs and sub-programs into one block grant to each state and authorized that a maximum of $589 million be spent on the block grants in each of the next three years.

States have the responsibility to administer the funds, with 80 percent passing directly to local districts primarily on the basis of enrollment and 20 percent to be spent at the discretion of state governments on administrative costs and special projects proposed by local school systems.

"I have never seen such a power struggle as I have seen as a consequence of this act," said Joe Webb, special assistant for public instruction for Governor James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina.

"In my state," said Mr. Webb, "the3legislature recently passed a law giving itself total control of the block grants, including those going to education. In our opinion that position contradicts the federal law, and we've asked the state's attorney general to make a ruling that the state statute is illegal."

In addition, he said, "the state treasurer's office has told me that it will determine how the money is to be spent, and the state auditor's office has said that it will determine the criteria for any audits.

"And all this is despite the fact that, in North Carolina, the 20 percent to be handled by the state may amount to less than $2 million," he noted.

The stakes are actually much higher than that, explained E. L. Grossner, assistant superintendent for the Illinois State Board of Education. A similar battle is taking place in his state and elsewhere around the country, he said, because politicians view the current block grants as the model for a much larger block-grant program, covering many areas, that they expect the Reagan Administration to propose in the future.

Groundwork Important

"The idea is to start small," he said, "and fold in other programs as the years pass. If that happens, the groundwork being laid here is very important in determining future decisions, when much more money is involved."

Control of the funds, however, is not the only problem facing local and state educators who deal6with block grants, speakers at the conference warned. Interest groups lobbying for specific programs will exert intense pressure on local boards, they said, while tighter budgets may tempt local officials to use the block-grant funds to pay for salaries and ongoing programs rather than for innovative solutions to the needs of their districts.

'Risk Capital'

Speakers also raised questions about the response of local school systems to their new freedom from many federal requirements concerning auditing and evaluation of programs.

"We expect to use the money to support 'risk capital'," said Joseph J. Martinelli of the Orange County public schools, a district that encompasses Orlando, Fla. "I would hate to see a district use the funds for support services, to pay the salaries of guidance counselors, for instance, only to find out in two years that the funds have dried up.

"Likewise," he said, "I would hope that the states don't use their 20-percent share to pay the salaries of people who used to administer the federal programs being consolidated."

Added Barbara Brauner Berns of the Brookline, Mass., public schools, "As a manager of federal programs, I have found outside evaluators to be very helpful and to provide much useful information about the programs we are running. Without the requirement of outside evaluation, will the local districts do it themselves?"

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