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Diffusion Network Is Threatened By Funding Dispute

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Washington--A number of state and local school personnel who depend on funding from the National Diffusion Network prepared to shut down or scale back their operations late last week because of a federal court order that has frozen the federal agency's finances.

According to state and federal officials familiar with the situation, the agency, which finances the dissemination of information on "educational programs that work," was scheduled to award approximately $9 million in grants on May 12 to 56 teachers and curriculum specialists who have developed effective educational programs and to 53 state and territorial officials who act as "matchmakers" between these developers and school districts interested in adopting their teaching methods.

An additional $1 million in new "developer/demonstrator" grants is scheduled to be awarded on June 15 to 28 locally based instructional-improvement projects.

But the grants are being held up indefinitely in Washington as a result of a series of court orders handed down by a federal district judge in Chicago. (See Education Week, Aug. 24, 1983.) The most recent order has frozen $54 million in Education Department funds pending the resolution of a lawsuit centering on the Reagan Administration's obligation to finance the Chicago Board of Education's school-desegregation plan.

In addition to ndn, which is funded by the Secretary of Education's discretionary fund, other programs affected by the judge's order include Title IV desegregation assistance, women's educational equity, Follow Through, and special educational assistance to the Virgin Is-lands. Lawyers involved in the Chicago dispute said last week that although they expected the judge to hand down a new order in the case "at any time," it was "extremely unlikely" that he would do so in time for the ndn grants to be awarded as scheduled. The Education Department, meanwhile, has developed no "contingency plans" to ensure the continued operation of ndn state facilitators' offices or the dissemination and training activities conducted by local school officials who receive ndn grants, a department spokesman said.

Crisis Situation

Several ndn grantees inter-viewed last week said their programs are being "held hostage" by the parties to the Chicago dispute. If the funding freeze continues much longer, they said, they will be forced to curtail their activities severely or shut down operations altogether.

"The [53] state facilitators are really facing a crisis right now," said Max McConkey, director of The Network Inc., a nonprofit organization that acts as the ndn state facilitator in Massachusetts. "In almost every instance, these people depend on their grants to operate. People across the country literally are going to go out of business as of Saturday."

Lois Weinberg, an ndn program specialist, said state facilitator offices in California, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia would "definitely" be closed as of May 12 pending the resolution of the Chicago funding dispute.

State-level operations will cease in Pennsylvania on June 30 if there is no resolution of the dispute by that time, said Richard Brickley, the ndn facilitator in that state.

"We worked hard last year to find supplemental sources of revenue, so we're good until then," Mr. Brickley said.

Layoffs Possible

But, he added, if the office's $150,000 grant does not come in by June 30, he will have to close down his office and lay off his staff.

"My guess is that we probably will be able to bring them back on if we get started up again by August 1," Mr. Brickley continued.

"But the problem isn't totally one of staffing."

He explained that the availability of low-cost ndn technical assistance often influences local school boards to appropriate funds for teacher training and other instructional-improvement efforts. "This couldn't have come at a worse time in terms of planning," Mr. Brickley said.

"The local districts are finalizing their budgets right now. They need to know now if we're going to be able to deliver training and assistance this summer. And all we can say is, "Hey, we don't know."'

"If this drags out into the summer, it will be disasterous," said Mr. McConkey of Massachusetts.

"The state programs are going to crumble and school districts are going to lose one of the most potent weapons in the school-improvement fight."

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