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E.D. Hit for Failure To Curb Paperwork Burden

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Washington--The Education Department (ED) has not fulfilled its legal obligations to reduce paperwork burdens on states and school systems, a General Accounting Office (GAO) study has concluded.

Although the department has been required since 1978 to monitor all federal departments' requests for information from education agencies and to ensure that state and local officials are given seven months' notice of paperwork requirements, the department has failed to comply with those requirements, the study said.

The GAO also criticized the education agency for curtailing the activities of a commission set up by the Congress to review education-related paperwork requirements and to recommend ways of reducing the number of federal forms. The commission, known as the Federal Education Data Acquisition Council, has not held a meeting since 1979, the GAO found.

The GAO is an independent agency of the Congress charged with investigating the activities of federal departments and agencies. The study, "Education Paperwork Requirements Are Burdensome: Better Federal Controls Needed," reviewed the department's overall compliance with the Control of Paperwork Amendments of 1978.

Although the study did not examine the quality of individual Education Department forms, the "efficiency and usefulness" of such forms will be the subject of a future study, the GAO said.

Under the four-year-old law, the department must publish in the Federal Register by February 15 of each year a list of the education-related forms to be filled out by schools, contractors, state education agencies, and researchers who receive federal funds from the Education, Labor, and Agriculture Departments, the National Science Foundation, the Veterans Administration, and the Census Bureau.

The paperwork-reduction law was enacted after Congressional hearings revealed that recipients of federal education grants were being asked to fill out hundreds of forms each year. For the coming school year, a total of 232 forms--taking 41.2 million hours to complete and affecting 11.7 million recipients of funds--will be required, according to information published by the department in the Federal Register in February.

In an apparent violation of the law, the department missed the February deadline for 85 paperwork requests during the past two years. The resulting additional burden on those who must fill out federal forms amounted to approximately one million hours of work by 419,000 recipients of federal aid, the GAO study said.

"The increased paperwork burden has become a major source of complaints from state and local participants in federal programs, some of whom perceive the burden to be out of proportion to the level of federal funding they receive," the GAO study says.

The study, which was made available to ed officials for comment prior to its publication, included an assurance from the department's office of management that no additional forms for the coming school year that have not already been listed in the Federal Register would be required unless "there is an urgent need for this information or if a very unusual circumstance exists."

Regarding the activities of the data-acquisition council, the department's response stated that new members had been appointed to the council and a meeting would be scheduled.

The response listed several reasons for the inactivity of the council, including the reorganization of the federal education office when the department was created in 1980, the resignation of the council's chairman, and the transfer of the staff of the council from the National Center for Education Statistics to the department's office of management.

'Changes in the Direction'

"These actions necessitated changes in the direction and operation of the council," the department's response said.

Among other criticisms of the department's paperwork-reduction efforts, the GAO study noted that:

The department has not developed a computerized indexing sys-tem to catalog all of its required forms, a tool that would enable the data-acquisition council to identify redundant questions on forms and to eliminate unnecessary forms. The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, which requires the Office of Management and Budget to oversee the paperwork requirements of recipients of funds throughout the federal government, has created conflict for the department's paperwork-reduction responsibilities. Because the federal budget office, as well as ed, must now approve education-related forms from all federal agencies, the lengthened approval process has caused the department to miss its February deadline, the GAO said.

Congress should repeal the department's authority to review all federal forms involving educational activities. Because the department's approval process for other agencies has not worked efficiently, the GAO said, its responsibilities should be limited to Education Department forms.

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