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Proposal for Regulatory Flexibility Gains New Life

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Washington--A proposal to drop some of the rules governing how school districts use federal education funds in exchange for new performance goals got a significant boost last week when the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee said he could support the idea if his concerns are addressed.

The proposal, advanced by Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, would allow school districts to enter into agreements with education officials to waive certain state and federal regulations and to mingle funds from different programs. Schools would set performance goals for their students, and could continue the experiment only if the goals were met.

Representative Augustus F. Hawkins had adamantly opposed the idea, arguing that it could allow districts to shortchange the disadvantaged and handicapped students who are the target beneficiaries of most federal aid.

The California Democrat did not endorse HR 3347 last week, but said he is willing to compromise.

"I think we can come to some agreement with Mr. Smith, because I think his motives are good," said Mr. Hawkins. He told the freshman Congressman, "I think by January you and I will be much closer together."

Republicans have supported Mr. Smith's bill, but some of the committee's liberals are not yet swayed.

"When I went to school, schools had plenty of flexibility and that flexibility only resulted in people like me being denied," said Representative Matthew G. Martinez, Democrat of California.

Mr. Hawkins also said his concerns were "based on experience," noting that the Congress had to amend education laws repeatedly to halt diversion of Chapter 1 compensatory-education funds to "swimming pools and faculty lounges," and "had to legislate" to ensure that handicapped and disadvantaged students received an education.

Mr. Hawkins said to win his support the bill must specify which regulations could be waived, ensure that federal money cannot supplant local spending, and protect the rights of disadvantaged students.

Civil-rights concerns may prove the biggest stumbling block. Mr. Hawkins' caveats echo those raised at a previous hearing by Phyllis McClure, director of policy and information for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who offered in May the harshest criticism to date of the Smith proposal.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed last week that lawmakers must ensure that "target populations" continue to benefit, and argued that the bill should be more specific about how success is measured, because "what we get is what we test." But he said the idea "deserves a demonstration."

Dorothy Kernzer Lipsky and Alan Gartner, researchers at the City University of New York who are former special-education administrators, argued in written testimony that disabled students must retain the "fundamental rights" given them under federal law, such as the right to education in the "least restrictive environment."

Most witnesses related anecdotes of educators hamstrung by red tape.

Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, for example, told the story of how Harry Galinsky, superintendent of schools in Paramus, was unable to bend Chapter 1 rules to create a program for at-risk 3-year-olds.

LaVaun Dennett, former principal of the Montlake Elementary School in Seattle, recounted how the school lost special-education funds when it decided not to segregate those students and lost Chapter 1 funds when disadvantaged students' test scores improved.

The National Governors Association said in a statement that it supports the bill's "policy direction."

Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association, said the union had not yet taken a formal position, but holds the same concerns voiced by Congressional liberals. He said the NEA is willing to discuss "ways to restructure federal programs to make them more effective," but is not convinced federal regulations are more hindrance than safeguard.

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