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Lawmakers Quiz Secretary Bell On Proposed Chapter 2 Budget Hike

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Washington--Hearings before a Senate appropriations subcommittee on the Education Department's proposed fiscal 1985 budget began last week with Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell restating the Administration's proposition that a significant increase in Chapter 2 education block grants is the best way to bolster the states' education-reform efforts.

During the hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Mr. Bell said the Administration's proposed $250-million increase in the Chapter 2 program is "the best way to provide the states with the flexible assistance they need to respond to the excellence push."

He also contended that "various members of the education community" have told him the most useful infusion of federal education money would be through Chapter 2.

The Administration proposes to increase Chapter 2 funding by approximately 50 percent--from $479 million to $729 million. The increase is part of a proposed $15.5-billion budget package for the Education Department that would increase federal education spending by $100 million over current levels.

The Administration is urging school districts to use Chapter 2 grants in ways that "harmonize" with the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Mr. Bell said last week that the increased funds could be used, for example, to strengthen mathematics and science programs and to expose students to the educational and commercial purposes of computers.

Last month, the Administration indicated that school districts would be free to use funds from their Chapter 2 education grants to finance reforms such as merit-pay or master-teacher plans.

Some state officials who oversee Chapter 2 programs seem to disagree about whether such plans are allowable expenses under the statute. And in a recent informal survey, many of them questioned whether Chapter 2 increases will translate into local school improvment. (See Education Week, Feb. 15, 1984.)

Senators attending last week's hearings pressed for assurance that more money for Chapter 2 would result in school improvement.

'Effectiveness' Questioned

Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the Connecticut Republican who chairs the subcommittee, asked whether a study on the effectiveness of Chapter 2 is available.

Mr. Bell said such a study is under way but will not be ready for several months.

Senator Lawton Chiles, Democrat of Florida, said, "We would want assurances, before making this increase, that the money would be used to promote quality--would you therefore be amenable to some directions from us about how the money should be used?"

Mr. Bell said the department could "state emphasis" without "violating the spirit of the block grant."

The Administration's request for $50 million for a program to improve the quality of instruction in mathematics and science was also discussed during the hearing.

Senator Weicker said he agreed that there is a need for more funding for mathematics and science, but asked, "If there is a need for categorical math and science funding, why isn't there specific need in other categories?"

Asbestos Removal

Mr. Weicker also mentioned the problem of school-asbestos removal. "Be assured we will not get away from this budget without money for that," he said.

The 1980 federal law requiring schools to inspect for friable--or easily crumbling--asbestos autho-rized a program of low-interest loans for school districts seeking to remove it. The Congress, however, has never appropriated funds for the program.

The Education Department has estimated the removal of all friable asbestos from all public and private schools in the country will cost $1.4 billion. According to Sally H. Christensen, a budget specialist in the department, the government's share of the cleanup expense could reach as high as $700 million.

This estimate is based on a provision in the asbestos-detection law stating that federal-loan volume for asbestos cleanup efforts could not exceed 50 percent of the total national cost of removal.

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