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States Found Relaxing Program Standards

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Washington--Five states no longer require school districts to keep records showing that they do not allocate less local funding to schools receiving federal Chapter 1 funds, and 31 other states have relaxed standards by which they judge "comparability," according to the General Accounting Office.

The gao surveyed all 50 states and the District of Columbia to determine how they responded to a 1981 change in federal law that permitted the loosening of comparability requirements. The results, discussed generally in testimony before a House panel last March and reported in final form Aug. 27, caused Congressional committees to tighten federal standards in legislation to reauthorize Chapter 1.

When the compensatory-education program was still known as Title I, Education Department regulations required school districts to document that no more than a 5 percent variance existed in per-pupil expenditures or student-teacher ratios between schools that received Title I funds and schools that did not. The analysis had to be performed twice during the school year.

The Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, which changed the program's name, retained a comparability requirement but eliminated specific local reporting requirements.

The Education Department revised the regulations as well, requiring only that districts file written assurances with their state education agencies that they had policies in place to assure equal staffing, salaries, and materials to Chapter 1 and non-Chapter 1 schools. The new regulations set no federal criteria for documentation of those promises.

The department issued a nonregulatory guidance memorandum in 1983, suggesting that states require record-keeping and that they use a 10-percent variance between schools as a standard. But the suggestions are not binding.

The gao found that five states--California, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, and Texas--no longer require districts to keep records proving that their schools are comparably funded.

Twenty-two of the remaining 46 states measure only student-teacher ratios; 17 also measure per-pupil8salary expenditures; and 4 allow districts to use either measure. The gao found that 31 of these states have increased the allowable variance between schools from 5 percent to 10 percent, while 15 states continue to restrict the variance to 5 percent.

Additionally, the report said, states use different definitions of "instructional staff" counted for these purposes, leading to further variance in standards.

"It is now possible under Chapter 1 for project schools to be considered comparable when they do not provide levels of state and locally funded services that would have been required to meet comparability under Title I," the report concluded.

Both HR 5, the House's omnibus reauthorization bill, and the companion measure completed last week by a Senate subcommittee would require districts to develop plans for ensuring comparability and to keep records documenting their implementation. The bills would also require states to monitor local compliance and withhold some Chapter 1 funding from districts that cannot show comparability.--jm

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