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Fight Seen Over Immigrant-Education Program

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Washington--Educators and some Congressional allies are pressing for changes in proposed regulations for the new immigration act that they fear would severely limit funding for educational services to aliens eligible for legalization under the law.

The Department of Health and Human Services "is choosing, at every point, to define things through the narrowest definition for educational purposes," said an aide to Representative William F. Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania, who is generally credited for the inclusion of educational benefits in the law.

A parallel battle is shaping up in California, where state officials are at odds over how much of the state's allocation--more than half of about $1 million in funding available under the immigration act--will be earmarked for education.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 established a process through which illegal aliens who have been in the U.S. for five years can become legal residents; it also created new penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens. The law requires most candidates for legalization to demonstrate proficiency in English and some knowledge of American government.

Last-Minute Addition

A last-minute addition to the massive bill provided federal funding to reimburse states for costs they will incur in providing health, welfare, and educational services to the newly legal immigrants.

Strapped for time, and concerned that education expenses could "consume the whole of the state allocations," as one Democratic aide put it, lawmakers cited in the bill the Emergency Immigrant Education Act, a grant program aiding states that must educate illegal alien children.

That move incorporated many of its rules into the new funding program, including a provision that restricts spending to $500 per alien.

When h.h.s. issued proposed regulations for the program in August, its Congressional authors and their constituents were not pleased with the way h.h.s. interpreted the immigration law and its relationship with the related education act.

The immigration law provides that funding be allocated to states based on the number of eligible aliens residing there and on estimates of what each state will spend serving them.

For fiscal 1988, which began Oct. 1, the agency proposes to calculate state allocations based on 1984 federal estimates of what states spent to serve each person receiving health and welfare services.

In its proposed regulations, which appeared in the Aug. 13 Federal Register, the agency said it had not come up with a satisfactory way to measure education expenses, and proposed estimates of $500 per eligible alien, "the maximum amount that may be paid for education costs" under the immigration law.

Hhs expects actual educationcosts to be lower, the regulations said, because many aliens will have "acquired" English proficiency while living in the United States, and some agricultural workers are not required to demonstrate proficiency to qualify for legalization.

Disagreement on Cost

But at a recent Education and Labor Committee hearing in Los Angeles, called by Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California and the panel's chairman, local educators said almost all eligible aliens would need some type of education to qualify for legalization, and it would cost far more than $500 per person.

Los Angeles schools turned away 40,000 applicants for English-as-a-second-language courses last year, witnesses said, arguing that it would cost $47 million to serve everyone who would need English instruction under the new law.

Congressional aides said last week that legislators did not intend the $500 cap to be applied the way h.h.s. plans to apply it.

States were to estimate their total cost, for education as well as other services, and the money was to be allocated among states on that basis, aides said. Then each state would be able to spend up to $500 per alien on educational services, with the remainder going to other programs.

The immigration law also requires that a state's estimate be reduced by the amount of any federal funding--such as adult- or bilingual-education funds--already being used to provide the same services to aliens that would be funded under the new law. Educators and their Congressional supporters fear that h.h.s. plans to make the subtraction from its proposed $500 per alien.

Other Limitations Questioned

Also under attack is a provision in the proposed regulations that would exclude from services aliens who have been enrolled in school for three years or more. The immigrant-education act includes that restriction, but aides said the immigration act specifies that this provision is not to apply to the newer law and provides an alternate description of who will be eligible for services.

Congressional aides were less firm in their support for an argument advanced by educators and civil-rights advocates that funds under the immigration act be available to provide basic education to aliens beyond the English and civics instruction they will need to qualify for legalization. The proposed regulations would prohibit the expanded services.

"The question is, what are we really trying to do for these new Americans?" asked Shirley Thornton, deputy superintendent for special programs in the California department of education, in an interview. "Are we going to provide enough education to make them productive members of a technological society?"

If the new citizens are not offered sufficiently advanced training, they will not succeed, she said, and "we will pay the money later" in increased welfare costs.

Comments Will Be Weighed

Norman Thompson, the h.h.s. manager in charge of the immigration act's regulations, refused, through a spokesman, to discuss the issue. The department is reviewing comments on its proposal and will take them into consideration, the spokesman said.

Congressional aides who met with Mr. Thompson and other h.h.s. aides recently said they hoped that some of their concerns would be accommodated. But they doubted the agency would issue guidelines on how states are to spend their allocations, as favored by some educators in California.

The immigration law requires that states spend at least 10 percent of their allocation on each of the three service areas covered: health, welfare, and education. But beyond that, state governments have discretion over the money.

A preliminary plan for spending California's allocation earmarks funding only for adult-education programs to prepare immigrants for legalization, and specifically states that no funding will be earmarked for services to children in elementary and secondary schools.

At the Los Angeles hearing, several witnesses--noting the large number of non-English-proficient students in California's public schools-- argued that more bilingual-education funding would be required to prepare such young immigrants for legalization.

Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, pointed specifically to the need for more trained bilingual teachers.

Ms. Thornton and others asked for more specific federal instructions as to what states' spending priorities should be. But she said last week that "it makes no sense for agencies to fight over a pot of money that's not large enough. We need the federal government to come through with the dollars."

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