Del. Block-Grant Program Poses Funding Dilemma

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Delaware educators are finding this fall that their state's new block-grant program has given them both a unique opportunity and a difficult responsibility: deciding on their own how to carry out a 15 percent cut in a key form of state aid.

At the urging of Gov. Michael N. Castle, the legislature this year approved a major restructuring of state education programs, under which a number of categorical programs were combined into three block grants. The new funding scheme calls on local educators to make funding decisions traditionally reserved for state administrators.

The shift to the relatively small block grants for adult education and career training has not caused many problems. But the consolidation of supplementary education programs into the Academic Excellence Grant has been a trying experience for local school officials.

The academic block grant is divided into two areas: the Excellence Unit Grant for career counseling, remedial education, and gifted-and-talented and at-risk programs; and the Excellence Allotment Grant for substitute teachers, student work/study programs, computer purchases, and homebound instruction.

The difficulty facing First State educators is that the block grant's funding, $15.9 million, is 15 percent less than the total provided the individual programs last year. As a result, districts must now decide where their priorities lie, and slash programs that fail to measure up.

Greater Flexibility Sought

Backers of the block-grant concept hope that, in doing so, districts will further the cause of reform even under tough economic circumstances.

"We were in an environment here where we were trying to work hard to find ways to provide more flexibility at the building and district level," said Helen K. Foss, education adviser to Governor Castle. The budget shortfall "gave us the opportunity to implement a piece of the direction we wanted to go anyway."

It was a piece that district administrators did not relish. Ms. Foss admitted that local administrators had expressed distress over the decisions that were handed to them. But she said they knew it was better that those decisions be made by people closer to the students than the bureaucrats in Dover.

"The concept is really great," said Ken Brown, director of business and finance at the Christina School District in northern New Castle County. "The problem is the block grant is underfunded. The cuts were foisted on us."

But Mr. Brown and other administrators were also quick to add that, if anyone is going to make cuts, they would rather do it themselves.

"I think it's to the district's advantage to have to prioritize and make the judgment of which programs to move forward and which to cut," said Reginald Green, superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

In the Christina district, state funding for the programs under the block grant dropped from $3.2 million last year to $2.8 million this year, while enrollment jumped by 720 students, Mr. Brown said.

To save the district's remedial-education staff, administrators fired the career counselors in the district's three high schools and eliminated five gifted-and-talented teaching posts.

Substitute teachers, work/study, computer purchases, and homebound instruction sustained a $100,000 cut from their half of the block grant, Mr. Brown said. But because they could not tamper with prior funding levels for homebound instruction and substitute teachers, which they are obligated to provide, administrators had little choice but to slash support for computers and work/study.

Such cuts were not unique. At Red Clay, the budget ax fell heaviest on career counseling and remedial education. The Capital School District in Dover lost its only career counselor and two of three social workers serving at-risk students. The Milford schools lost their only career counselor and one of six remedial educators.

'Focus on What You Want'

And at a time of economic austerity nationwide, such cuts were not unique to Delaware either. But observers say that the manner in which they were carried out is different from other states, and that the Delaware block-grant experiment is worthy of attention.

Typically, the way states have been handling their cuts is slashing across the board," said Chris Pipho, director of state relations at the Education Commission of the States. What we've seen is that, if you're going to... keep the intent of reform alive, you have to use these difficult times to focus on what you want to be doing."

Mr. Pipho said that the E.c.S. has repeatedly used the Delaware block-grant scheme as an example for other states facing austere budgets. So far, however, the idea does not appear to be catching on elsewhere, he said.

Despite that reaction from other states, Ms. Voss expressed pride in Delaware's creative budgeting and hope that funding levels would someday go back up, giving district administrators the chance to expand programs rather than cut them.

The block grant is primarily a reform effort, Ms. Voss argued, and only secondarily an austerity measure.

But Ms. Voss also warned that with the tiny state's largest employer, the Du Pont Company, in the midst of down-sizing, educators had better get used to setting strict priorities.

"Yes, it's very, very difficult," she said, "but really it will be good for us."

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Page 19

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