'Transition' Paper Cites Flaws in E.D. Program Guidance
Washington--The Education Department's failure to provide uniform guidance to states and localities participating in federal education programs has resulted in confusion and inequities, the General Accounting Office says in a new report.
The department also needs to collect more data on program effectiveness, improve the coherence of its management, and take decisive steps to curb student-loan defaults, the Congressional research agency argues.
The report on the Education Department is one in a "transition series" of 26 documents, released by the gao last week, that offer advice to the incoming Administration and the Congress on improving federal management.
The reports represent the gao's first attempt to provide guidance for a Presidential transition, according to William Gainer, the agency's associate director for education and employment and in charge of the education report.
"We welcome any recommendations on improving management," an Education Department spokesman said. "We're not going to agree with everything they say, but we welcome ideas. We'll take it under advisement and see if there's room for improvement."
"There are a number of things in the gao recommendations that we have underway already or have sought approval for from Capitol Hill," the spokesman said, referring to department proposals for attacking student-loan defaults.
The spokesman, an aide to Charles E.M. Kolb, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, declined to comment on particular criticisms or recommendations in the report.
The report says the gao has "identified numerous situations where better guidance to states from the department could improve program operations."
For example, the department has not provided uniform guidance on how severely handicapped a student must be to participate in the state-operated Chapter 1 program for handicapped children, the report maintains.
As a result, it says, some states have garnered a "disproportionate'' share of available funds by counting greater numbers of less severely handicapped students as eligible than do other states.
The report also contends that federal vocational-education money directed to needy students is going unused because some state and local officials do not realize that requirements for matching funds can be met on a statewide basis.
Even though other districts might have spent enough of their own money to allow a state to meet federal requirements, the report concludes, some poorer districts have turned back grants because they could not provide matching funds.
"I'm sure there are other examples where there are questions that aren't answered," Mr. Gainer said. "These cases are dramatic because something untoward happens because of it."
"It illustrates that there is guidance needed at the state and local level, and that the department is not trying to find out what its customers need out there and provide that guidance," he said.
Little Uniform Data
Federal efforts to gather information on education also were faulted by the gao The department collects little information that is useful in measuring the effectiveness of its programs, the report says, adding that often the data that are collected are not uniform.
In 1984, for example, the Congress required states to report on the effectiveness of the Chapter 2 block-grant program. Yet, the report notes, the department provided no uniform data-collection guidelines.
"As a result," it says, "states reported data using such a variety of formats and data categories that it was almost impossible to compare one state to another, let alone understand what was happening nationwide."
Mr. Gainer added the example of vocational education, where no nationally comparable information exists on how much money states spend in each of the program areas established by law.
"You can't manage a program properly unless you know what it's doing," Mr. Gainer said. "Yet we often find the necessary information doesn't exist, and the Congress turns to us to find an answer to these questions."
The department has a particularly pressing need to improve its data base on student-loan programs, the report suggests, arguing that inadequate data have hampered efforts to get borrowers to repay their loans.
The report also recommends pressing guarantee agencies to work harder to collect on defaulted loans.
The document had some words of praise, however, for the department's attempt to invoke sanctions against institutions with high default rates.
Management System Urged
The report urges that a system be set up to integrate the management of the department's many divisions and evaluate progress toward agencywide goals.
The gao plans to study the department's management in depth sometime in the next two years, Mr. Gainer said, adding that it has already undertaken a similar examination for most major federal agencies.
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Paper Cites Weaknesses in E.D. Program Guidance
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Other education-related reports in the pipeline include reviews of the vocational-education and Chapter 1 special-education programs. At the request of Representative Major Owens, the New York Democrat who chairs the Select Education Subcommittee, the gao also will look at the management of the office of special education and rehabilitative services.
Other Reports' Proposals
Other reports in the transition series touch on education-related issues. They include:
Education research. A report on "program evaluation" finds that governmentwide efforts rate only a "C-." It names education as one of four "priority areas" where more research should be funded.
The gao specifically urges that the Congress and the department examine the practice of allowing laboratories and centers to receive the bulk of federal education-research money.
The Job Training Partnership Act. A report on Labor Department operations urges that the jtpa be targeted at those in greatest need and that more efforts be put into training participants for jobs with higher skill levels.
The federal budget. The gao bluntly states that the deficit is worse than it appears, and that the problem cannot be solved without a combination of tax increases and budget cuts.
The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings8solution of automatic cuts is a bad idea because more than 70 percent of the budget is exempted, the agency argues. "The rest of the government would be gutted if the machinery were allowed to operate without restraint," it says.
The Stafford Student Loan program is the only education program that is exempt from cuts under the deficit-reduction law.
The gao calls for multiyear budget agreements between the President and the Congress, based on "realistic estimates of costs" and "credible economic forecasts." It also calls for separating operating and capital expenses for several categories of government programs, so that the budget could be "a more useful tool for allocating resources."