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Bennett Clarifies Intent of Hatch Amendment

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, pointing to what he called "widespread misunderstanding" of the Hatch Amendment, said last month that most classroom activities do not meet the "stringent requirements" for coverage under the amendment.

The Secretary made the comments in a letter responding to a request for clarification of the department's stance on the amendment from Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on select education.

The letter states that the "psychological and psychiatric testing" cited in the law and in implementing regulations refers to "activities of a nonacademic nature, which are designed to elicit information about attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs, or feelings." Mr. Bennett said the definition is not intended to include standardized achievement tests, tests about academic subject areas, or tests administered primarily for diagnostic purposes.

His April 22 letter noted that group activity, such as role-playing, alluded to in the definition of "psychological or psychiatric examination or test" may require parental consent if "all other requirements for coverage under the Hatch Amendment are met." He said that whether a school activity has as its "primary purpose" eliciting information prohibited by the law will have to be decided on a "case-by-case basis after reviewing the circumstances surrounding a complaint."

Law's Purpose Debated

The 1978 amendment and the Education Department's 1984 implementing regulations allow parents to limit their children's involvement in some types of federally supported programs, particularly in the area of "psychological and psychiatric testing" that may elicit information about their religious or political beliefs.

The regulations and the amend-ment, originally introduced by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, have been the focus of intense debate in the past few months. Some conservative groups--in particular, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum--are seeking a broad application of the rules, while other education and civil-rights groups are fighting to overturn them, claiming they constitute an improper extension of federal authority into the classroom.

Senator Hatch, in a February address before the Senate, also attempted to "clarify" the intent of the law, using language similar to that of Mr. Bennett's letter.

Applies in Limited Cases

In his letter, Mr. Bennett said he had met with many education groups to clarify the department's interpretation, "and I have stressed the need to try to make the Hatch Amendment work--to increase pa-rental involvement in those limited instances where the amendment applies by giving parents the right to consent to their own children's participation in covered activities."

Although parents' groups and the Eagle Forum have distributed about 250,000 copies of a model letter to school districts across the nation in the past few months, demanding compliance with the amendment, Mr. Bennett said that federal authorities have received only four complaints thus far.

However, several Congressional offices and education organizations say they have received numerous inquiries about the amendment from parents and school officials around the country.

Fails To Clarify

S. Gray Garwood, staff director for the select-education subcommittee, said that "it is helpful to have a very tight statement about the narrowness of the Hatch Amendment in print."

He added, however, that the letter still does not provide adequate clar-ification of certain provisions in the amendment.

Melanne Verveer of People for the American Way said the letter reiterates what Education Department officials told a coalition of groups opposed to the amendment at a briefing in February.

Questions 'Left Unanswered'

"Our basic questions are left unanswered," Ms. Verveer said. It is still not clear, she contended, what constitutes nonacademic activity, what determines research or experimentation, and who decides what the "primary purpose" of a test is.

"It's fine to say they are handling things on a case-by-case basis, but that doesn't help schools determine what is covered and what isn't," she said.

She said that even though the department has received only four formal complaints, the amendment has a "chilling effect" on schools.

"The letter attempts to downplay the impact, but the amendment is very broad and ambiguous," she6said. "The reality is that teachers and school administrators don't know what they are up against. We continue to get questions at the local level."

'No Draconian Measure'

Ms. Schlafly and aides to Senator Hatch said they were satisfied with the letter and agreed that "most classroom activity" would not be covered by the amendment.

"I would hope most classroom activities are teaching knowledge and skills, science, and math," Ms. Schlafly said.

Ronald P. Preston, Senator Hatch's assistant for education, said he does not have "any great quibble" with the letter. The amendment "is limited, compared to what people say it does," Mr. Preston said. "It's not some sort of license to burn books. It's supposed to be a common-sense thing, not some Draconian measure."

Mr. Preston said that groups such as the Eagle Forum, "as well as the other side, have taken the amendment too far."

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