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Takeover Threat In Omnibus Bill Worries Officials

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Washington--Chapter 1 provisions that are likely to be included in the pending omnibus education bill could greatly alter the relationship between school districts and the state officials who administer the federal compensatory-education program.

With a House-Senate conference on the legislation set to begin soon, lobbyists representing teachers, administrators, and school boards are vigorously opposing "program improvement" language in the Senate version of the bill that they say would result in unwarranted intrusion by state agencies--and possibly in district "takeovers."

The program-improvement component, included in both versions of the bill and strongly supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers, would require regular reviews of Chapter 1 students' progress using "objective measurements."

"There is great antipathy between some people and state agencies," said Bruce Hunter, associate director of the American Association of School Administrators. "In other states, they have a great relationship. But it's the antipathy that drives our position."

"We are very concerned about it because the federal government is mandating a change in the relationship between the state and local governments in the major federal education program," said Edward Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association. "It really upsets the balance of responsibilities."

Another provision included in both versions of the omnibus education bill, HR 5 and S 373, would tip the balance of power in the other direction by curtailing states' authority to write restrictive regulations, such as rules barring districts from teaching certain grade levels or subjects in Chapter 1 programs.

'Corrective Action'

But most prominently at issue are the provisions designed to spur academic improvement in failing Chapter 1 programs.

Both bills would require local and state education agencies to regularly review the success of programs under their purview, using "objective measurements" of student achievement.

Districts would be required to identify schools with failing programs and develop improvement4plans. Failing programs are defined by the House bill as those in which students show no improvement and by the Senate bill as those whose students demonstrate "inadequate improvement."

If, after two years, achievement by a school's Chapter 1 students did not improve, or declined, the state agency would be empowered to step in and help local officials develop a second improvement plan and criteria for measuring its success. The legislation also calls on state agencies to provide technical assistance to the districts involved.

The lobbyists say these provisions are acceptable.

But the Senate bill also contains highly controversial language that would grant state agencies broad power to "take appropriate corrective action" in cases where local districts have "substantially failed'' for at least two years to provide "effective" compensatory services.

It would also earmark 0.5 percent of Chapter 1 funds for state improvement activities once appropriations reach $4.8 billion, and 1 percent in subsequent years. The Congress appropriated $4.3 billion for fiscal 1988.

Opposition Letter

Some lobbyists argue that the Senate language would allow states almost unlimited authority to meddle in local affairs. They also contend that state officials are trying to direct more Chapter 1 money into state coffers.

"While the intent of the Senate committee to ensure the best possible programs for compensatory-education students is clear, we reject the notion that state education agency intervention is an acceptable or effective means to this end," five education associations said in a letter asking House conferees to oppose the Senate language.

"The empowering of state agencies to tinker with local programs compromises one of the greatest strengths of Chapter 1--its focus on the local level," the letter says.

The letter's signers, in addition to the aasa and the nsba, included the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the National Education Association.

But the chief state school officers' executive director, Gordon M. Ambach, supports the Senate provision, which he said would not in itself allow state agencies to take over schools. Under S 373, state agencies would be able to intervene in Chapter 1 programs only in ways that state law allows them to intervene in schools generally, he said.

He noted that the bill "doesn't define 'corrective action' on purpose; it could be different things in different states under differential state authority."

Congressional aides and lobbyists said the controversial language was proposed by Administration officials and has been championed by Senator Dan Quayle, Republican of Indiana, who succeeded in adding it to S 373.

Mr. Quayle did not intend, an aide said, to foster wholesale takeovers by state agencies, but to promote cooperative efforts between state and local officials.

An aide to Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, who also worked for the provision, said only state legislatures could give state agencies takeover power, and agreed with critics that state authority under the provision must be more clearly defined.

"The details that are missing are not the point," he said. "What the Senate is saying is that we need a bottom line. After three years of nonperformance, something extraordinary needs to be done; the states can take a leadership role."

But Mr. Kealy of the nsba said that "if [allowing takeovers] is not what was intended, this was drafted pretty badly."

"This gives states basically unlimited power," he said. "It's using Chapter 1 as a lever to get into the school district and say, 'You must do this."'

Mr. Hunter of the aasa said the proposed language was dangerously vague. "What is 'inadequate improvement'? What is 'appropriate action'?'' he asked. "What is 'adequate improvement' that would signal the state's exit?"

In addition, Mr. Hunter said, "we have a doubt about the ability of state agencies to help districts that are really troubled."

Noting that states could receive almost $5 million to administer the "program improvements," he asked, "Whatever you get from the states, would it be as much as you would get by adding 1,000 more Chapter 1 classrooms?"

Mr. Ambach argued that assistance from states has figured in many educational success stories, and said that the threat of state intervention in itself can be enough to spur effective local action.

The limits on state regulation included in the bills are less controversial, and are certain to be included in the final legislation.

Congressional aides said they were included in reaction to testimony indicating that school districts in different states were operating under different rules.

Mr. Hunter said the a.a.s.a. had surveyed the largest district in each state and found that "the only thing you're allowed to do in all 50 states is to teach reading to elementary-school students."

Some states prohibit the teaching of certain subjects, the inclusion of certain grade levels, or the hiring of certain types of personnel with Chapter 1 funds, he said.

Mr. Ambach declined to take a position on an issue he said was already decided, but expressed the belief that limits on state regulation make the program-improvement provisions imperative.

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