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Court Order Blocks Withdrawal Of School-Improvement Grants

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Washington--A federal district judge in Trenton, N.J., has temporarily prevented the Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement from withdrawing federal grants from 13 school-improvement projects that have been deemed effective by the National Diffusion Network (NDN).

The decision by Donald J. Senese, the official who ordered that the programs' federal grants be withdrawn, is said by informed observers in the NDN to be part of an effort by officials of the Reagan Administration to prevent the Education Department (ED) from supporting programs that run counter to conservative political philosophies.

The federal court order issued on May 11 prevents Mr. Senese and other ED officials from taking any action against the 13 programs until the court delivers a ruling on the legality of the proposed cutoff of funds.

The NDN provides grants to "effective" local school programs for the purpose of developing methods and producing materials that can be adopted by schools in other districts.

'Special Project' Materials

The NDN was initially authorized in 1974 under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) in order to aid in the dissemination of "special project" materials developed under Title III of that act. This authorization was broadened in subsequent years to include projects developed within or outside of the Education Department.

The NDN is operating with a $10.3 million budget for fiscal 1982, an increase of about $1.6 million from the previous year's level of funding.

Local programs must pass a stringent quality-review process conducted by a body of federal educators and evaluators known as the Joint Dissemination Review Panel (JDRP), before they are even eligible to apply for NDN grants. Programs that win initial NDN grants must then undergo an annual review process if they are to continue receiving federal monies.

According to NDN officials, the 13 programs in question had all been approved in the initial review and also had passed the secondary annual review, which should have guaranteed their funding through 1984.

In late April, however, the directors of the 13 programs that had been approved for funding received letters from Mr. Senese dated April 22 informing them that their NDN grants would be terminated effective May 12. The letters stated that, in the assistant secretary's opinion, the programs "were not in the best interest of the federal government."

The 13 programs singled out by Mr. Senese address topics that include drug-abuse prevention, in-school alternatives to student suspension, ecological awareness, religion in human culture, and the reduction of sex-role stereotyping in occupational decision making. Some of the programs emphasize values clarification and a humanistic approach in addressing these topics, according to program descriptions included in an NDN publication entitled Educational Programs That Work.

School officials representing four of the 13 programs that were notified by Mr. Senese of the impending fund cutoff filed suit on May 11 in U.S. District Court in Trenton to block the ED move.

According to Jonathan I. Epstein, a lawyer representing the four programs, the lawsuit against Mr. Senese and Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell alleges that:

Mr. Bell failed to honor federal priorities as required by the Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) by attempting to fund new NDN-approved projects before fulfilling the department's agreements with the 13 existing programs.

Mr. Senese's action against the 13 programs was "arbitrary and capricious," a violation of EDGAR, which requires "reasonable conduct" by federal officials.

The cutoff of funds in the middle of a multi-year funding cycle would constitute a violation of contracts between ED and the programs.

The cutoff of funds would violate the programs' constitutional right to due process of law, as well as rights to freedom of expression and, in one case, freedom of religion.

'Satisfactory or Excellent'

"All the documents that we have obtained from Mr. Senese's office and the NDN show quite clearly that each of the plaintiffs' programs was judged to be satisfactory or ex-cellent by staff reviewers," Mr. Epstein said.

"We had absolutely no indication that this was coming until we received Mr. Senese's letter," said Ralph E. Bailey, director of the St. Petersburg, Fla., school district's Positive Alternatives to Student Suspensions Program (PASS), one of the programs singled out for a withdrawal of federal funding.

"We never received a complaint about our program from either the community or the federal government," Mr. Bailey explained. "Mr. Senese never indicated the criteria he used to judge us by. It seems to me that there has to be some unspoken reason why he decided to cut off our funds. It wasn't our performance, and it wasn't a question of money.''

Mr. Bailey said that the 13 programs, although quite different in terms of their objectives, "all emphasize to some degree an approach to problem solving through the treatment of people with respect and by involving students in the decision-making process." A spokesman for Mr. Senese said the assistant secretary and all other ED officials will have no comment while the matter remains in litigation.

Mr. Epstein, the lawyer for the plaintiff programs, said that staff members of the House Republican Study Committee, a body that conducts legislative rESEArch for conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, have been asking him and his clients for information about their programs and for copies of their NDN program reviews.

Mr. Senese, before joining the Reagan Administration, was a senior research associate for the study committee, from 1976 to 1981.

"The requests from them started coming in after we filed suit in federal court," Mr. Epstein said. "We have absolutely no idea what it is that they want, but we are quite troubled by their requests."

Collecting Information

Jack Klenk, a staff member of the study committee, said that the group has been collecting information on a wide array of NDN\sponsored programs in order to prepare Republican Congressmen for hearings on the NDN that are scheduled to take place on June 9.

"We selected about 20 NDN programs to look at in preparation for the hearings, and it just turned out that several of them were involved in this lawsuit," he said.

The hearings, Mr. Klenk explained, will focus on HR 5818, a bill sponsored by Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan. Representative Kildee's bill would remove the NDN from its current funding status as a discretionary program under the Secretary of Education, making it instead a line item in the federal budget.

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