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Federal File: A gray area; Snake oil; A moot point

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As part of its biannual school survey, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights requires districts to report on the racial makeup of their student bodies.

But in which column does the child of an interracial couple belong?

The Sept. 4 issue of Time magazine carries an item about a Greensboro, N.C., family who became "victims of bureaucracy" when O.C.R. officials forced a school to classify Mahin Root despite her refusal to declare herself white or black.

The difficulty, said O.C.R. spokesman Paul Wood, stems from a 1977 order by the Office of Management and Budget establishing racial survey categories to be used by all agencies.

He said O.C.R. has run into this problem before, but only omb can change the categories, which "shouldn't be interpreted as being scientific or anthropologic in nature or as determinants of eligibility for any federal program."

School administrators, not students, are required to fill out survey forms, Mr. Wood said, and they are told to decide for themselves how to classify a student. He confirmed that a Greensboro official was told to make a "visual check."

"They could have simply overlooked one student, but I guess they wanted to take a stand on this," he said.

At a recent hearing, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee likened ed officials' promoting parental choice to "medicine men selling snake oil."

Augustus F. Hawkins, of California, objected to the department's plan to hold regional meetings on choice, which he fears could work against disadvantaged students.

"Before you go out and sell the idea to others, document the success of what has been instituted," Mr. Hawkins said.

When the House adopted a 1990 education budget Aug. 2, Representative William E. Dannemeyer tried to offer an amendment barring the use of federal funds "to instruct in homosexuality or bisexuality in any school district."

But the Los Angeles program that inspired his action--which was defeated on a 279-to-134 procedural vote--receives no federal funds.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles schools said the program is primarily a counseling service offered by a homosexual teacher who devotes half her time to it. While the district provided some start-up funding in 1984, the only continuing cost is Virginia Uribe's salary, he said.

Ms. Uribe also speaks to students in schools that have invited her.--jm

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