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Hatch Regulations Misinterpreted, Bennett Asserts

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said last week that the controversial Hatch Amendment regulations are much narrower in scope than conservative groups' interpretations have claimed.

The 1978 amendment and the Education Department's 1984 regulations give parents the right to limit their children's involvement in some types of federally funded school programs--in particular, testing that elicits information about personal or religious values.

While Mr. Bennett has said he supports the regulations and increased parental oversight in schools, he said last Thursday that the disputed rules do not apply to teachers' guides and instructional materials in the regular curriculum, echoing the law's sponsor, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah.

Senator Hatch, in an effort to dampen the controversy over the breadth of the regulations, said late last month that the statute was intended "to guarantee the right of parents to have their children excused from federally funded activities under carefully specified circumstances. ... These 'activities' are nonscholastic in nature."

In his first appearance on Capitol Hill since his confirmation, Mr. Bennett said the law gives parents the "right of removal [of their children from objectionable activities], not the right of alteration."

S. Gray Garwood, an aide to Representative Pat Williams, the Montana Democrat who questioned Mr. Bennett on the issue, said the Secretary's comments "were a very important clarification" of the limited scope of the rules.

Opposition on Budget

Mr. Bennett's comments came in the closing moments of a 75-minute session before the House Education and Labor Committee, during which he encountered stiff bipartisan opposition to the Administration's fiscal 1986 budget proposals in education.

The questioning focused on proposed deep cuts in college-student aid, which would fall from $8.6 billion this year to $6.3 billion under the President's plan. Mr. Bennett strongly defended the reduction, which is not considered likely to win Congressional approval.

A senior Republican on the committee, Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, told the Secretary, "We'll help you rewrite that budget--you can rest assured."

Efforts Continue

Mr. Bennett's remarks about the Hatch Amendment did not soften the interpretations of the rules' most vigorous conservative proponents, although Senator Hatch, too, has criticized them for seeking to apply the rules so broadly. (See Education Week, Feb. 27, 1985.)

Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum, maintained in an interview that parents have "every right" under the Hatch regulations to inspect--and respond to--all the materials used in their children's education, including regular classroom materials. The Eagle Forum, in conjunction with other conservative groups, has distributed to some 250,000 parents a "model" letter to school districts demanding compliance with the Hatch regulations. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1985.)

That letter specifies certain academic practices--such as the teaching of "organic evolution, including the idea that man had developed from previous or lower types of living things"--that its authors say are covered by the regulations.

Briefing To Clarify

The Eagle Forum and an allied group, the Maryland Coalition of Concerned Parents on Privacy Rights in Public Schools, were to hold a briefing last Friday to clarify their position and to distribute a book edited by Ms. Schlafly, Child Abuse in the Classroom, which contains transcripts of hearings held last year on the regulations before they became final.

The issue has sparked intense national attention. Last week, it was the subject of a segment of the popular television talk show, "Donahue," on which Ms. Schlafly and Senator Hatch appeared, along with opponents of the regulations.

Those opponents, including a coalition of 26 education and civil-rights groups, are lobbying the Education Department and the Congress to overturn the rules. They argue that the regulations constitute an improper extension of federal authority into the classroom.

Another Session

Meanwhile, Mr. Bennett was scheduled to appear before the House panel again on March 5. His appearance last week was abbreviated because he had to introduce the President at the meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Responding to one of the few questions directed at him on the budget for elementary and secondary education, Mr. Bennett defended the plan to eliminate the new $75-million magnet-school program, which the Congress has already funded. He praised the concept of magnet schools as a "sound way" to eliminate racial segregration but said that local and state educational authorities could pay for them.

Aides accompanying Mr. Bennett noted that Chapter 2 block-grant funds or the new mathematics-and-science-improvement bill could supply money for magnet schools.

Questioning at the second session was again expected to focus on the Administration's program in higher education.

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