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Magnet Program Judged Favorably

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Washington--A General Accounting Office review of the grants process for the $75-million Magnet Schools Assistance Program has found few faults with existing procedures and suggests that only minor modifications are needed to make the program run more smoothly.

The favorable review appears to lay to rest criticism of the grants process leveled by several school-district officials after the latest round of grants was announced in June.

Last month, a federal judge turned back a challenge to the grants process mounted by the Boston Public Schools, one of 88 districts that competed unsuccessfully this year for a share of the funding. Only the 38 top-ranked proposals were funded.

The General Accounting Office, a watchdog agency of the Congress, conducted the review at the request of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

The report did not contain any surprises for lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to Congressional aides. "We did not expect to find a smoking gun," said one.

Aides also said last week that the gao report should not lead to any major changes in current proposals to reauthorize the magnet-schools program, which is scheduled to expire at the end of fiscal 1988.

The full Senate was expected to vote this week on S 373, a massive bill that creates several new education programs and reauthorizes many of the existing ones, including the magnet-schools program. The House approved its companion measure, HR 5, in May, before concerns about the magnet-school awards process surfaced.

In its report, the gao noted "that current selection criteria are not aimed at maximizing the reduction of minority-group segregation."

According to the report, Education Department officials are considering revisions in the program regulations that "would allow the potential impact on desegregation to play a greater role in grant selection.''

Department officials were not available for comment last week.

The Senate reauthorization bill, however, veers in the opposite direction. While the grants are currently available only to districts that are implementing an approved desegregation plan, the Senate bill would create a new category of grants for school districts wishing to implement magnet schools solely for educational purposes.

The Senate bill also addresses concerns that the grants process favors districts that have previously received grants; it would require the department to assign top priority to new applicants after the first $75 million is awarded.

Both the Senate and House bills would increase the authorized ceiling for the popular program from $75 million to $115 million in 1989, with larger increases in subsequent years.

In its report, the gao concluded that the reviewers used to rate each application were qualified under department guidelines, and that each review team contained members with the appropriate range of expertise.

A survey of the 24 1987 reviewers also found that some did not recall receiving copies of all applicants' desegregation plans, and only 12 of the 19 who recalled receiving them said they used information from the plans to evaluate proposals. This discrepancy "could result in some inequity in the scoring of grant proposals," the report said. Thirteen reviewers said the time allowed for reviewing proposals was inadequate.

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