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Chapter 2 Directors Question Plans For Block Grant

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Washington--State officials who oversee programs funded by Chapter 2 education block grants appear to disagree over whether master-teacher plans and other pay-incentive schemes are allowable expenses under that statute.

An informal survey of several state Chapter 2 coordinators last week also revealed that while many officials approve of the Reagan Administration's proposal to increase funding for the program by approximately 50 percent, they do not think it will translate into many significant education-improvement efforts at the local level.

"We have about 200 small districts in my state and one of our smallest ones received a grant of $65 last year," said a coordinator from a Northwestern state. "What do you think they'll do with a 50-percent increase?"

In the budget request that it sent to the Congress earlier this month, the Administration asked that the appropriation for the block-grants program be increased from its current level of $479 million to $729 million. Education Department officials said they would encourage state and local education agencies to use their block grants to implement the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1984.)

Among other recommendations, the commission called for master-teacher plans, salary increases for all teachers, upgraded high-school curricula, and a longer school day or school year.

During budget briefings for the media, department officials said school districts were free to use their block grants to finance "experimental" reforms of this sort and any others that could be justified as educational improvements, as long as the funds were not used for construction or to supplant state and local financing.

Many of the state Chapter 2 officials interviewed agreed with this interpretation. In general, they said that Title IV-C of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, one of more than 40 programs folded into the block-grants program in 1981, could be interpreted as allowing such expenditures.

Title IV-C, which was funded at approximately $50 million in its final year asa separate program, awarded funds to school districts on a competitive basis for "innovative" projects that promised to improve educational practices, with special attention being paid to the needs of handicapped and disadvantaged students and high-school dropouts. It was also intended, in part, to finance professional-development programs for instructional staff members.

The law that created Chapter 2 requires that local programs funded under the statute have goals similar to the antecedent programs like Title IV-C that were consolidated to create the block-grants program.

"Title IV-C was an extremely broad statute," said Weaver B. Rogers, a deputy assistant superintendent of education in North Carolina. "It talked of school improvement, and that's quite a global term. Since it's a part of Chapter 2 now, I don't see any difficulty with a district that wants to be innovative in the design of a pay system for its teachers."

A Chapter 2 coordinator from a Midwestern state who requested anonymity added: "If you're a creative writer, you can do damn near anything you want with block-grant money."

"I think a lot of things like master-teacher plans can be appropriately addressed by Chapter 2," he said.

But another block-grants coordinator from an Eastern seaboard state, who also asked not to be identified, said that such an interpretation of the statute "is bull."

"That's supplanting federal funds for state and local finances to pay teachers," he said. "I have federal auditors standing around just waiting for us to make a single mistake."

Mona H. Bailey, assistant superintendent of the Washington State Department of Public Instruction, added that she does not agree "with the attitude of total flexibility" in the spending of Chapter 2 dollars.

"It's a laudable philosophy, but I think it would take some changes in the law to do the kinds of things the Administration is saying you can do," she said. "I don't agree that all of the excellence commission's recommendations are allowable under Chapter 2 as it's written."

Despite their differences of opinion on which commission recommendations could be funded under Chapter 2, the coordinators all appeared to agree that the proposed $250-million increase for the program will not guarantee that reform efforts will blossom at the local level.

'Increase Won't Buy Much'

"A 50-percent increase in my state's school districts won't buy much," said Ms. Bailey of Washington State. "The districts that have a large population base, let's say those with more than 2,00 students, perhaps they'll get enough money to implement excellence plans. But I don't think the 200 or so smaller districts will receive a sufficient amount for the development of meaningful programs."

"One has to wonder if an additional $9 or $10 per student is going to have a significant impact," said Otis G. Baker, coordinator of state and federal programs for the Missouri Department of Education.

"If the money is concentrated on a single grade level or a single issue, it could make a significant dent," Mr. Baker said. "But last year some of our districts' allocations were so small they couldn't even afford to have an education-school professor come in for a day of consultations."

A block-grants coordinator from a Rocky Mountain state concurred that it is questionable whether most school districts will use their Chapter 2 funds to finance innovative reform efforts next year, given the fact that most of them have used a large portion of their previous allocations to purchase instructional materials and computers.

"I guess I'd have to take the conservative view and predict that there won't be much change in way that Chapter 2 money is spent," he said. "The local agencies have great discretion when it comes to spend-ing this money. It will be a real challenge directing them to funnel their money into new areas, especially when you consider that the law specifically prohibits us from telling them what to do with their block grants."

"I think there's a growing number of people who'd like to see more direction in this program, even if it means changing the law," said Ms. Bailey of Washington State. "I feel there's a growing consensus on this point here and in other states."

Ms. Bailey predicted that this topic will emerge during a meeting of all state Chapter 2 directors in New Orleans later this month.

The meeting, which has been endorsed by the Education Department and is being coordinated by the Southeastern Regional Council for Educational Improvement, was called to allow the directors to discuss evaluation strategies for the program.

Last spring, state education officials asked the Education Department to sponsor such a meeting in Washington.

The department initially agreed to the request, but canceled the gathering after many states had already invested a substantial amount of money and staff resources preparing for it, the state officials said.

Department officials said the decision to cancel the meeting was based primarily on two grounds.

First, they said, the nonregulatory guidelines for the program would not have been cleared by the Office of Management and Budget in time for the gathering. (The guidelines were mailed to state education agencies last July.)

Second, they added, there was a concern among a number of department officials that the focus of the meeting would shift from evaluation strategies toward a general question-and-answer session regarding the overall administration of the program. The officials said it was their feeling that questions of this sort would best be handled on a more formal basis.

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