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Conferees Likely To Loosen Rules In Bilingual Law

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Washington--House and Senate conferees have agreed to increase from 4 percent to 25 percent the portion of federal bilingual-education funds that can go to alternative, English-based programs, according to Congressional sources.

That resolution of a longstanding dispute is one of many agreements reached by House and Senate staff members in nearly a month of negotiation on differences between the two chambers' omnibus education-reauthorization bills.

The agreements have set the stage for a formal conference this week.

The compromises forged by the aides are likely to win approval from the lawmakers on the conference committee. The panel is also expected to discuss outstanding issues and could resolve some of them this week.

One hotly disputed provision is the proposed expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Aides said House conferees were "apprehensive" about the Senate's naep proposals, and that staff members were drafting an alternative, less ambitious proposal as of late last week.

The expansion plan, supported by the Education Department, calls for testing more students more frequently in more subjects, and for collecting data that allow state-by-state comparisons.

The proposal for such comparisons is opposed by some educators and lawmakers, who argue that it could lead to more test-oriented instruction and result in a de facto national curriculum.

One House aide said some conferees were "dead-set against" the provision and many were reluctant to "throw another $10 million" into naep, particularly after the recent controversy over an "anomaly" in results from the assessment's 1986 reading test. (See Education Week, March 2, 1988.)

On another contentious issue, aides said differences over "program improvement" provisions that would give states authority to intervene in failing Chapter 1 programs would definitely not be resolved before the lawmakers meet. (See related story, page 17.)

The eligibility formula for the compensatory-education program's "concentration" grants--which are designed to increase support for districts with heavy concentrations of poor students--is also an unresolved dispute.

The issue is "whose ox is being gored," one aide said, noting that the formula will determine whose constituents benefit most.

Uncertainty on New Programs

Also undecided, staff members said, is the fate of several new programs proposed in S 373, the Senate's version of the reauthorization bill.

They include a family-school-partnership initiative, the proposed "fund for the improvement and reform of schools and teaching," a new discretionary fund for the Secretary of Education, and a rural-education program.

Aides said most such programs probably would be retained in the final bill in some form, but no firm decisions had been reached late last week. One House aide said some new programs may be consolidated into a block grant.

Aides agreed that two proposals to support parental choice were the most controversial among House conferees, and were certain to be debated by the conference committee.

One would expand the magnet-schools program to make districts not undergoing desegregation eligible for grants. House aides said their conferees might seek amendments that would target the initiative at predominantly minority districts.

The other proposal--considered even more controversial--would create a new program for districts interested in experimenting with open-enrollment plans.

Although only public schools would be eligible, one aide said that Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, had vowed that "a voucher program would never come out of his committee."

Aides said many House conferees also oppose a Senate initiative to support child-development centers. Their position, an aide explained, is that the proposal should not be included in the education bill in a year when a host of preschool and child-care proposals are being considered separately.

Bilingual Controversy

The bilingual-education issue was expected to be among the most difficult to resolve.

The controversy began in 1985, when the Reagan Administration proposed eliminating a provision restricting the bulk of funding for bilingual education to programs using students' native languages.

The Administration argued that local educators should be allowed more "flexibility" in choosing alternative instructional methods, such as those emphasizing English.

Bilingual-education advocates strongly opposed that idea, arguing that native-language methods have been shown to be more effective.

HR 5, the House version of the omnibus bill, included compromise language that would guarantee existing funding levels for bilingual programs, while earmarking 75 percent of any additional appropriations for alternative approaches.

The Senate bill contains a different compromise that would raise the current 4 percent limit on funding for alternative programs to 25 percent.

Trades on Provisions

Aides said the issue was resolved when bilingual-education advocates urged House conferees to accept the Senate plan. In return, Senate staff members agreed to accept other House provisions that the advocates favor, such as language limiting the Education Department's ability to alter the program through regulations.

While the House plan would have preserved existing funding, and would probably have resulted in less funding for alternative programs, "the cost was to give up the future of bilingual education," said James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education.

In addition, Mr. Lyons said, the Senate language permits, but does not mandate, funding for alternative programs.

A new Administration might not favor such alternative approaches, he said.

He also noted that the Senate version would allow more funding for developmental, or "two-way," bilingual-education programs--methods that many bilingual advocates con4sider promising.

In a letter to conferees, Mr. Lyons also expressed a desire to defuse the controversy that has surrounded bilingual-education programs in recent years.

Because the Administration supports the Senate language, he wrote, it is "more likely to produce the political peace sought through this legislative compromise."

Other Agreements

Other provisions that aides said they had agreed to retain include:

House-passed audit-reform language that would make it harder for the Education Department to recover allegedly misspent funds from school districts.

A compromise provision urging, but not requiring, the department to negotiate with advocates on some Chapter 1 regulations.

Virtually all of the Senate's amendments to the impact-aid program, which compensates districts affected by the presence of federal activities. Those changes would be combined with the lower, House-passed authorization level and a limit on annual growth.

The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools favors the Senate changes, which would simplify the distribution formula and allow more affected districts to receive some funding, but not the funding restriction.

Provisions targeting Chapter 2 block-grant funds to a list of specific purposes, which aides said would include items from both bills. The final bill, they said, will earmark some Chapter 2 funding for "effective schools" programs, the approach taken by HR 5. The Senate bill included a separate program.

New rules for the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act that would require participating school districts to estimate the extent of their drug problems and document the success of their programs.

Aides said the bill would mandate technical assistance from state agencies for districts that cannot show that drug use has declined because of their efforts.

It does not, however, provide for a cutoff of funding or require applicant districts to determine the percentage of students using various drugs, as did the Senate-backed language, which reflected the Education Department's proposal.

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