Migrant-Education Commission Is Eyeing Major Changes in Records-Transfer System
By Millicent Lawton
Buffalo, NY--Some two months before adopting its final recommendations, the National Commission on Migrant Education is apparently preparing to call for significant changes in the national system used to transfer the academic and health records of children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
The changes under consideration include the use of financial sanctions to effectively mandate full participation by the states in the Migrant Student Record Transfer System.
"I think the system is sufficiently imperfect now that we could be doing a lot better," Linda Chavez, chairman of the commission charged by the Congress with scrutinizing
the federally financed system, said last week. "What we're talking about is a major overhaul" of the records-transfer system, she said.
In a business meeting held here April 28 in conjunction with a public hearing by the commission and a national multi-agency conference on migrant farmworkers, 6 of the panel's 12 members reviewed and debated a draft of five recommendations to improve the computer-based network.
The commission's specific recommendations are still "pre-decisional," Ms. Chavez said. The panel is scheduled to complete its deliberations before July 1 in order to meet a September deadline for formal release of its report.
Key Points Emerge
However, the commission's discussion at last week's meeting and subsequent interviews with Ms. Chavez indicate that its conclusions--intended as the basis for legislative action by the Congress--are likely to focus on ensuring:
- Faster, more accurate, and more complete transfer of records;
- Full participation by states in the msrts, possibly by tying its use to federal aid for migrant programs;
- Streamlined records, without "extraneous information";
- A backup transfer of records to supplement the automated system, possibly through the use of copies hand-carried by parents and children as they move to new locations;
- Improved parental understanding of the records-transfer process; and
- Greater oversight of the msrts, possibly by the U.S. Education Department.
The recommendations have been developed from 18 months of research, as well as three public hearings by the commission on the effectiveness of the system.
The msrts, based in Little Rock, Ark., is designed to transfer student records to help provide continuity in education and health care for children whose families may move as often as eight times a year to follow the nation's agricultural harvests.
The system began as a joint effort by several states in the early 1970's. Forty-nine states now participate in varying degrees, and the system currently receives nearly $6 million in federal funding under the Haw0 kins-Stafford Educational Amendments of 1988.
Goodling Voices Concerns
The draft recommendations discussed by the half-dozen commissioners meeting here must still be reviewed by the six panel members who were not present, including all four members of the Congress who serve on the bipartisan commission.
One of those lawmakers, Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, said last week that he backed efforts to fine-tune the msrts But he said he was skeptical about expending much time or money in revamping a system that may be doomed to imperfection because of the highly mobile population it serves and its dependence on flawed human input of information.
"I think we have to accept the fact that the material we get is going to be rather sketchy at the best," said Mr. Goodling, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.
He added that he was not in favor of making full state participation mandatory by tying it to continued federal aid for migrant education.
"I certainly don't want money taken from migrant programs," Mr. Goodling said.
Ms. Chavez, who met late last week with Mr. Goodling to try to allay his concerns, said his initial reaction to the commission's latest discussions was influenced by the fact that his staff had not briefed him on a recent draft of the recommendations.
After speaking with Mr. Goodling, Ms. Chavez said, "I did not sense at all that we were apart" on the issues covered in the draft. Mr. Goodling could not be reached for further comment.
Mandating participation in the msrts, Ms. Chavez noted, would not automatically mean loss of service to students if their state did not participate, thanks to a "bypass" pro vision in the migrant-education law.
Under the law, the Secretary of Education may step in to contract out records-transfer services in a state that has decided not to participate in migrant programs, according to Margaret Hoppe, a consultant to the commission.
"Nobody wants to see [migrant children] in worse shape after we make such a change than they were before," Ms. Chavez said. .
Another key lawmaker not present at the April 28 meeting, Repre sentative William D. Ford, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, could not be reached last week for his reaction to the draft recommendations.
But according to Ms. Chavez, the Michigan Democrat is concerned that the msrts has gone beyond its original mission of transferring students records by also providing compilations of migrant data for educators. Ms. Chavez said Mr. Ford recently told her he might ask for a General Accounting Office investi gation of the system.
In addition to Mr. Ford and Mr. Goodling, the federal lawmakers on the panel are Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, and Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio.
Half of the remaining eight members were appointed by the President and the other half by the Congress. They include a former migrant farm worker, a high-school English teacher, a university president, and private-sector leaders.
System Covers 600,000 Pupils
Created by the Congress in 1988 to examine 12 issues crucial to migrant education, the commission be gan its work in the fall of 1989. The report on the msrts is to be the first of two it will issue. The second is due in the fall of 1992 and will cover other migrant-education issues.
The timing of the panel's recommendations on the records-tranfer system is significant, because the contract for maintaining the network is slated to go out for bids next year, as it does every four years.
A nationwide data network conL nected to a central computer in Little Rock, the msrts has been overseen by the Arkansas Department of Education since its inception.
The system contains the records of more than 600,000 children, accord ing to its director, Troy L. Rinker. That figure represents all of the children enrolled in a migrant-education program and served by federal funding, Mr. Rinker said. However, he and others noted that no one knows how many migrant children remain uncounted.
The value of the msrts, its sup porters say, is that the full and accu rate transfer of information on a migrant pupil can help ensure that the child is not needlessly retained in grade, given the same battery of tests twice, or subjected to excessive immunizations against disease.
But even Mr. Rinker and other boosters of the system acknowledge that it is not perfect. And Ms. Chavez said the panel did not hear many strong defenders of the system in its hearings.
The question of whether the msrts "satisfies the need for quick and accurate transfer" of records, the panel chairman said, has generated "a lot of concern" from the beginning among the commissioners. "Nothing that we've learned has mollified that [concern]," she added.
In what Ms. Chavez called a "fundamental flaw" in the system, records are often incomplete, perhaps giving only the child's name.
According to Mr. Rinker, while the information that is present on the record is "extremely" accurate according to federal audits, information is often missing. No system can account for the "human factor," he said, because the system depends on people to enter the information.
Data may also be missing, Mr. Rinker said, if the child spent time in a district without a migrant-education program, or if he travels back and forth between the United States and another country, such as Mexico.
Another point Ms. Chavez raised is 0 that far more money goes into the msrts than the $6-million budget for the Little Rock office, a fact that she said makes the issue of accountability that much more pressing.
Each state must supply time and personnel to enter information for its migrant students. No formal total has been calculated, but a commission-staff member estimated the figure could be as high as $30 million.
'Rewards and Punishments'
Another recommendation being considered by the commission--"full utilization" of the system by the state departments of education that administer migrant-education funding--would almost certainly need to be ensured by legislative action tying it to federal funding, Ms. Chavez said.
There "has to be some system of rewards and punishments," she said, arguing that leaving full participation up to the "good will" of state officials does not ensure the best use of the program to help migrant children.
Indirectly, Mr. Rinker of the msrts said, use of the system is already tied to federal funding, since states use its data to calculate their enrollments of migrant students--figures that provide the basis for applying for federal aid.
All 49 states that have a migrant- education program--only Hawaii does not--as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are con0 nected to the system and at least enter enrollment figures, Mr. Rinker said.
According to Ms. Chavez, the records also need to be "streamlined," so that no "extraneous" information, such as a pupil's bouts with the flu, is included along with the "essential" data of attendance, academic evaluations, immunizations, and serious health conditions.
In part, Ms. Chavez said, that move would make participation by local educators easier, because the system would be "not so complex and arcane."
Need for Family Awareness
The "other very major concern" of the commissioners, Ms. Chavez said, is that students and their parents be come more aware of the system.