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Federal file: A new recruit; Stocking the war chest; Sending

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messages; Money worries A rumor that Richard "Digger" Phelps, the Notre Dame basketball coach, would go from pacing the sidelines to shuffling paper at the Education Department was reportedly circulating last week in Indianapolis, where the National Association of Basketball Coaches met before the final rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

But according to news reports, Mr. Phelps denied that he is seeking a special post at the department related to sports and higher education.

An Education Department spokesman declined to comment on the speculation.

The 1992 elections are more than a year away, and Congressional districts have yet to be redrawn to reflect population shifts revealed by the 1990 census.

But Representatives Dale E. Kildee and William D. Ford, both Michigan Democrats, are not wasting time.

Mr. Ford, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, recently sent out a mass-mailing letter addressed "Dear Educator," soliciting campaign funds for Mr. Kildee, who heads the panel's Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

Mr. Ford noted that Michigan will lose two Congressional seats in 1992, and Mr. Kildee, who he called "one of education's best friends and most vigorous supporters," is "facing some political uncertainty."

Senate committees routinely submit written questions to Presidential nominees as part of the confirmation process, most of which probe a candidate's philosophy.

But senators also use the opportunity to further their own agendas. The questions submitted to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander were no exception.

Senators often raise local concerns. Senator Paul Simon, for example, wanted to know how the federal government can support school reform in Chicago. The Illinois Democrat also complained about the Education Department's treatment of the Plainfield, Ill., school system, whose high school was destroyed by a tornado.

Mr. Simon said the district could not raise 25 percent of the replacement cost, as is required for a federal grant. The Senator accordingly authored an amendment last year waiving that matching rule for districts that show financial difficulty and a good-faith effort to raise nonfederal funds.

The Education Department gave the district 25 percent less than it needed, and told Mr. Simon's staff that the district had not met the amendment's requirements.

Mr. Alexander promised to look into the issue.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy seized the chance to chide President Bush for failing to fulfill campaign promises to deliver an annual address on education and to increase funding for dropout-prevention efforts and the Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching.

Mr. Alexander told the Massachusetts Democrat he did not know why the Administration wants to cut funding for first, argued that efforts other than the anti-dropout demonstration program target that problem, and defended the President's record on "speaking to the nation about education-related issues."

Mr. Kennedy, chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, also criticized the department's handling of the anti-dropout program and the "Star Schools" telecommunications program.

He complained about an "absolute priority" mandating that 80 percent of the dropout funds go to districts that have adopted restructuring plans, and a plan to give priority to Star Schools applicants that want to develop programming rather than purchase equipment.

Mr. Kennedy claimed that the agency has no right to set such priorities, and that they violate Congressional intent.

Mr. Alexander said he had "been advised" that the priorities are consistent with law, and also submitted a specific defense prepared by e.d. employees.

Although Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah is the ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, his state's schools receive the least federal education funding per pupil.

That is because funds for the largest precollegiate program, Chapter 1, are distributed on the basis of a state's average per-pupil expenditure--which is low in Utah--as well as the number of poor children who live there.

And the Chapter 1 funding formula is used to allocate all or part of the funds distributed by some other programs.

"We're finding that the large cities are sopping up all this money in what is really an unfair formula," Mr. Hatch told The Associated Press.

He and other members of the Utah delegation have introduced legislation that would solve some of their problems by essentially eliminating per-pupil expenditure as a formula factor.

But the Utah delegation is likely to gain little more than favorable mentions in local newspapers. The argument has been made many times--in vain.--jm

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