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Title IV Centers Face Summer Shutdown

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WASHINGTON--Federally supported desegregation-assistance centers face the prospect of a summer shutdown--postponing training and technical help for many school districts--because the Education Department has failed to issue new regulations on time.

With grants for the centers scheduled to expire on June 30, the department is still working on a final version of the rules, which will take effect 45 days after publication in the Federal Register. As a result, new grants are not expected to be awarded until at least mid-August, both for the centers and for state education departments.

Civil-rights advocates also warn that, as proposed on Feb. 17, the regulations would disrupt and weaken the desegregation-assistance program, which is authorized under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The department's plan would consolidate the 40 existing centers--which specialize in race, sex, and national-origin issues--into 10 "super-centers'' to handle all three. Department officials say the reorganization will improve the "efficiency and effectiveness'' of the Title IV program.

But critics argue the result would be to close centers that have spent years developing the relationships and expertise to handle complex and specialized civil-rights questions--further depleting a field that many professionals have left in recent years because of its financial instability.

Since 1981, the Reagan Administration has sought to eliminate Title IV assistance, arguing that its "original purposes ... have largely been accomplished.'' While rejecting the proposal for zero funding, the Congress has frozen federal support at $24 million for several years, with $14 million earmarked for the states. In the early 1980's, funding was frequently disrupted by court orders in the Chicago school-desegregation case.

Michael J. Alves, desegregation-assistance project director for the state of Massachusetts, said that the Education Department's current concern for administrative efficiency in Title IV "is really missing the point.''

"What's desperately needed is expertise,'' he said.

"These [professionals] take years to develop,'' he argued. "And they're becoming an endangered species because of the erosion of funding. ... It's not an attractive field to get involved in anymore.''

Mr. Alves predicted that the new rules "will disrupt an already fragmented program,'' as centers with different specialties are forced to compete against each other. For example, a sex-equity center, which has "pioneered innovative strategies'' in its field, may have "no expertise in classic school-desegregation [issues and would be] at a real disadvantage,'' he said.

The anticipated lapse in funding this summer can only exacerbate the problem of attrition among professionals in the desegregation-assistance field, Mr. Alves added.

Also, Title IV services to districts are likely to be disrupted, said Maria Torres, a consultant in the equal-opportunity office of the Maryland Department of Education. "There's normally a lot of staff development that goes on right after the end of school,'' she said.

'Malign Neglect'?

Expressing frustration about the regulatory delay, spokesmen for several centers last week privately questioned the Administration's motives, citing its historic opposition to continued Title IV funding. "It could be malign or benign, but it's clearly neglect,'' said one who asked not to be identified.

Lois Bowman, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, denied that the department was engaged in any "conscious or willful attempt to disrupt the program.''

"What we've been doing is trying to improve the way we provide services,'' she said.

Ms. Bowman insisted that officials are doing all they can to avoid a lapse in funding or at least to mitigate its effects. For example, she said, centers with unspent funds may be authorized to continue operations temporarily.

She declined to predict when final rules would be published. "The regulatory process takes a long time,'' she said. "There must be adequate time for public comment, and the comments must be responded to. We're not allowed to make [new] awards until we have regulations in effect,'' and the Congress has had 45 days to review them.

Ms. Bowman said she had heard the charge that the elimination of 30 centers would reduce the pool of expertise and disrupt Title IV services, but added, "I don't understand it. It would seem that the networks would still exist. There's always been open competition for grants.''

Centralizing all desegregation assistance into a single center in each region, she argued, would result in "better coordination between types of services.''

"For example, there's one national center for vocational education, and the voc-ed people are very happy with it,'' she said.

Debate Over Effects

At least one civil-rights advocate--who was otherwise critical of the Administration's Title IV policies and who asked not to be named--agreed that centralization could benefit desegregation assistance by "improving quality control.''

Some centers already handle all three types of assistance effectively, while others have much room for improvement, the advocate said, adding that "these people should be talking to each other,'' rather than solely concentrating on their own specialties.

"It is totally desirable for those three areas to join forces and to work in a unified fashion ... but that's different from blurring the [separate] issues of race, sex, and national origin,'' argued Rosa Castro Feinberg, director of the national-origin desegregation-assistance center at the University of Miami.

"The present structure provides for a concentration of resources and for strengthening networks in each of those areas,'' she said. "It permits more intensive mentoring, more specialized training sessions, and greater access to specialized materials.''

"Each center has its own network--state boards, school districts--and the [department's] proposal will have the effect of breaking up these constituencies,'' said Russell Prust, field-services director for a national-origin center that serves 10 Midwestern states.

Based at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the center must now compete for its grant against race and sex-equity centers in the same region, Mr. Prust said. No matter who wins, the consolidation of services is likely "to weaken the level of expertise [in] responding'' to school districts' needs, he predicted.

Need for Services

Mr. Prust challenged the assertion that Title IV has largely served its purpose. "As the office for civil rights weakened its enforcement under this Administration, the demand for [desegregation-assistance] services increased,'' he said.

Districts need help in developing "a new awareness'' to cope with new groups of immigrants, Mr. Prust said, noting that 85,000 Indochinese refugees have settled in the center's service area--nearly half of whom are 17 or younger--since the mid-1970's. If schools have any language services, they are likely to be oriented toward Hispanic students, rather than Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, or Vietnamese children, he said.

"One district in Wisconsin took Indochinese kids who were exiting from English-as-a-second-language [classes] and tried to shove them into special education,'' Mr. Prust said. "[Officials] had to be told, 'That's against the law.'''

"Desegregation isn't dead,'' Mr. Alves added. "The issue hasn't gone away. If anything, there's a new awareness'' as districts move toward adopting such voluntary desegregation tools as the "controlled choice'' method of student assignment.

Mr. Alves and Ms. Torres, who both had praise for the civil-rights efforts of their own departments, said that, because many states are less aggressive, the independent centers remain essential to help districts provide equal opportunities.

The Administration outlined an opposing view in its fiscal 1988 budget documents: "The desegregation issues that remain can be addressed far more effectively through such programs as the Chapter 2 block grant and magnet-schools assistance--both of which provide funds directly to school districts rather than to costly third-party administrators.''

While the Congress is expected to reject this argument for the seventh year in a row, last week there appeared to be little sentiment on Capitol Hill to interfere with the Education Department's proposal to consolidate the centers.

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