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Rand Reports Identify Misuses, Conflicts In Federal Programs

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School systems that operate more than one federal education program are likely to experience conflict between federally sponsored programs and regular classes, according to two reports developed for the Education Department by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

In addition, the new studies say, local school officials are likely to use federal funds intended for one "target" group of students--particularly Title I students--to serve other students.

Responsibility for the problems rests both with local officials, who often treat federal programs as "foreign entities," and with federal bureaucrats, who do not provide sufficient technical assistance to local school systems, says one of the reports, which was released last week.

Although the two reports could be interpreted as an indictment of federal categorical programs, "it would be unfortunate if the data are used to support any elimination of programs for the disadvantaged," said Jackie Kimbrough, who conducted the research along with Paul T. Hill. "We don't think such programs are ill-conceived; they are implemented badly. They shouldn't be eliminated, they should be strengthened," she added.

The first study, "The Aggregate Effects of Federal Education Programs," was conducted to determine if claims by state and local administrators about problems schools experience with implementing federal programs had any basis in fact.

Urban Schools Chosen

Researchers selected eight school systems whose administrators had complained of "difficulties administering multiple categorical programs." All but one of the school systems chosen were urban, and all operated four or more federal programs.

Interviews with local administrators and teachers "produced strong evidence" that two broad categories of problems existed in all of the school systems studied, according to the report. The researchers say they found evidence that federal categorical programs are implemented in such a way that they "interfere" with the "core local program," and that funds received for a large program, such as Title I, are used to "cross subsidize" other programs, such as education for the handicapped.

The second study, scheduled for release in about three months, verifies that identical problems exist in schools throughout the U.S. that operate multiple federal programs, according to the researchers.

Unlike the first study, in which the researchers "went looking for problems," the second study is based on a broad, statistically representative sample, said Mr. Hill. "The first report identified the problems. The second asked, 'How general are the problems?"' he added.

Both studies were completed by the Santa Monica, Calif., firm under a $220,000 federal contract, he said.

Based on the first set of findings, the researchers concluded that schools permit the federal programs to cause "interference" by:

Taking some students out of regular classes--up to five times a day--so that they can attend federally financed classes for disadvantaged, handicapped, or bilingual students. As a result, some students may fail "to receive the district or state-mandated curriculum," the report said.

'Categorical' Classes

Replacing regular classes with "categorical" classes. In some schools, "there were no district-paid regular reading or mathematics teachers present in the schools" because all students attended "categorical" classes. "So much attention was devoted to the categorical programs that most other content areas (geography, science, health, etc.) were not taught," the study said.

Using conflicting curricula to teach regular and special classes. Some school districts used "new math" textbooks for their regular classes, while basic mathematics books were used for Title I students. Others taught reading using the highly structured distar reading program only to Title I students, while other students used conventional reading texts. Such practices presented problems for students who attended both regular and special classes, the study said.

Spending large amounts of time responding to the administrative requirements of federal categorical programs. According to the study, teachers estimated they spent between 30 and 45 minutes each day on administrative tasks related to categorical programs. Principals complained of spending "an inordinate amount of time" dealing with the problems associated with the presence of federal programs.

Experiencing staff conflicts between regular and special-class teachers. "Jealousies and tensions between the core and categorical-program teachers reportedly reduced the cooperation necessary to make categorical programs truly supplement regular instruction," the study says.

Creating segregated classes for students who participate in the categorical programs, a situation that develops because low-achieving, minority students are "pulled out" of regular classes and grouped together in special classes. The segregation was most pronounced in schools where Hispanic students attended two separate types of federally funded bilingual-education classes--provided under Title I and the Emergency School Aid Act--each day, in addition to Title I reading and math classes.

According to the study, local officials cause such "interference" when too many federal programs are operated in each school; when they refuse to "accept the legitimacy of the federal role in education, and treat categorical programs with distaste"; and when federally funded classes are kept separate from regular classes, in order to demonstrate that federal money is spent separately from local funds.

'Cross Subsidy'

The study also found that officials practiced "cross subsidy" to fulfill the requirements of "unfunded" federal mandates--such as those governing women's rights, accessibility to the handicapped, and affirmative action--by draining off money from well-endowed programs, such as Title I. This was accomplished in three ways:

Assigning students who should receive services under one program to another program. The study says school systems that had no bilingual-education programs used either special-education teachers or Title I teachers to instruct students in English-language skills. In schools that had limited funds for special education, some mildly handicapped students were reclassified as "educationally disadvantaged" so that they could qualify for Title I.

Using federal money earmarked for one type of service--such as Title I counseling programs--to provide other services. "Many district officials" said that Title I counselors and psychologists were assigned to work on the individualized education plans required by federal law for handicapped students, the study said. In addition, one school system that had no bilingual-education money "automatically assigned" non-English-speaking students to Title I programs, while another used bilingual-education funds to purchase hearing and mobility aids for handicapped students, the report said.

Assigning staff members whose salaries are paid by one program to work on other federally mandated programs. The study found that in several schools, "principals had arranged to pay every member of the instructional staff from two or more sources of funds," a phenomenon known as "multifunding" that the researchers claim is widely practiced.

"The existence of a combination of categorical programs and unfunded requirements creates incentives for districts to practice cross-subsidy," the report said. It listed several circumstances responsible for that: "local budgetary limits; local priorities among beneficiary groups; external pressures applied by courts and enforcement agencies"; and the practices and priorities of local school systems.

Suggestions Proposed

Local school officials can "reduce the problems" caused by multiple federal programs, according to Ms. Kimbrough, by "not making kids participate in every federal program for which they are eligible, by limiting the amount of time during which any child can be out of the regular classroom," or by scheduling federally sponsored classes as "extra classes before or after school."

The report also contains some advice for federal officials: "Congress in particular needs to recognize [that] school districts can respond to unfunded mandates in four ways: (1) pay them out of local revenues; (2) redirect federal funds intended for other purposes; (3) engage in trivial 'paper' compliance; and (4) ignore the requirements."

The report concludes that "districts seldom chose the first option, but typically followed a mixed strategy of options two and three."

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