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Federal File: Estimating the impact

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When it began to look last month as if the federal budget would be cut across the board, the education community switched on its computers.

"The fact that the bottom line [for the Education Department] would go down from $24.4 billion to $24.1 billion doesn't sound like such a big deal," said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. "You have to put in in human terms."

For education lobbyists, putting budget cuts in those terms means calculating a deprivation factor.

"Even a partial sequester would have profound consequences," warned a letter the c.e.f. sent to each Congressional office last month.

It said keeping cuts in force for three months--which is roughly what the Congress did--would "eliminate Pell Grant awards for over 30,000 needy students and reduce awards for 1.3 million more; deny Chapter 1 services to over 100,000 educationally deprived disadvantaged children, and deprive 6,500 3- and 4-year-olds the benefits of the early-childhood education provided through Head Start."

In its newsletter, the National Education Association used yearlong figures and added an estimate for bilingual-education programs--21,000 deprived students.

Abundant quirks in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law, however, make it difficult to estimate how much a program would lose.

Nor, for that matter, is gauging the number of additional students that would be served by a certain amount of money an exact science, as the lobbyists readily concede.

The usual method is to divide the amount by the "average" spent for each individual in the program.

For example, the lobbyists divide the $66 million cut from Chapter 1 by the average amount schools across the nation spend per eligible pupil.

But it's not that simple, because per-pupil spending varies and it is impossible to determine how additional money would be used.

Some increases would go to schools with no extant program, where some money would be absorbed by administrative costs, and relatively few children would be added.

Other districts might decide to create a schoolwide project where only 20 percent of a school's students are currently served, adding more children than the average would suggest.

Additionally, when billion-dollar numbers are rounded off for calculations like these, the resulting inaccuracy can be equivalent to thousands of new "beneficiaries."--j.m.

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