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Congress Cuts Out 'Blue Ribbon Schools' Program

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department's Blue Ribbon Schools recognition program is tiny by federal standards, but it is no small thing for the schools that win high-profile honors in the annual competition.

It is also popular within the Bush Administration, which touts it as an incentive for reform, and also realizes its public-relations value.

But some members of the Congress seem to disagree.

Funding for the program was not included in the fiscal 1992 budget enacted in November. As a result, this year's competition was abruptly canceled--after 477 schools had already been nominated by state officials and a private-school organization.

For schools, the long road to recognition begins by filling out a 37-page application form that educators say takes an enormous amount of time and energy to complete.

Site visits are conducted, and a review panel selects just over 200 schools for recognition each year, alternating each year between elementary and secondary schools. Winning principals get a trip to Washington, where they are honored at a White House ceremony. (See Education Week, May 20, 1987.)

One of the first educators to learn of the cancellation was Dan Horn, the principal of St. Thomas School, a small Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles that was among the private-school nominees. Mr. Horn decided to fight, and began making telephone calls--to the Education Department, to his congressman, and to reporters. "We have waged a little war here at St. Thomas, because we feel passionate not only about the program but about what the program could have done for our school," Mr. Horn said.

He said the school's nine teachers, as well as many parents, devoted about 1,000 hours to completing the application because they hoped national recognition would attract enough donations to renovate an adjoining building to expand the school. Mr. Horn's campaign alerted the media to the cancellation. Word also reached state officials involved in =@5 the awards program. Letters and telephone calls began pouring into the Education Department and Congressional offices.

Letter to Congress

The protests seem to have had an impact.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week sent a letter to Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to work with him to restore funding for this year's awards.

Though he did not suggest specifically how to find the money to revive the program, Mr. Alexander offered in his letter to work with lawmakers to identify funding sources.

Some observers speculated that Congressional Democrats canceled the $885,000 program to deny President Bush an annual photo opportunity with educators.

Congressional aides said, however, that the program was simply the victim of a tight budget and a lack of ardent support.

Representative William H. Natcher, the Kentucky Democrat who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing education spending, decided not to include funding for the program in the draft bill he presented to colleagues because he did not view it as a high priority when compared with pro- grams that provide educational services, aides said.

Aides noted that lawmakers or education advocates did not protest during House consideration of the bill, and that Administration officials focused their efforts on obtaining funds for Mr. Alexander's education strategy, America 2000.

The counterpart Senate bill included funding for the awards program, but the item was left out when lawmakers met to reconcile the two versions. It was not discussed in the public portions of the conference, and aides said there was no objection raised when the program was included on a list of potential cuts.

"I don't think even [department officials] really got concerned until they started getting phone calls," an aide to Mr. Natcher said.

Launched in 1983

The awards program was launched in 1983 by then-Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, and was funded from discretionary' monies until the Congress formally authorized it in 1988. It received earmarked appropriations in spending bills from fiscal years 1989 through 1991.

Congressional aides said it is unclear whether the department can use its discretionary funds to finance the awards. In any event, the Congress severely limited the department's discretionary budget this year to curtail Mr. Alexander's ability to support the Administration's political agenda. (See Education Week, Dec. 4, 1991 .)

Department officials do not think it would be in their best interests strategically to use discretionary funds, even if they were available, said Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, whose office oversees the awards program.

"If we fund it that way, Congress will say, 'Do it that way every year,'" she said. "It's a good program, and it should be funded on a regular basis."

Educators familiar with the program agree that it inspires schools to improve.

"I'm strongly convinced that this motivates people," said Michael Gula, who coordinates the recognition process for the Texas education department. "I've seen many sister schools emulate the progress that has been made by a school that has won."

Educators whose schools have won awards say that the application process is valuable itself.

"Each staff member had an opportunity to write about his piece" of the school program, said Delores F. Baden, the principal of North Chevy Chase Elementary School in Maryland, which won an award in 1990. "There was an esprit de corps above and beyond what had been there in the beginning."

But winning federal recognition brings more practical benefits as well, making a school more attractive to talented teachers, drawing private donations, and creating community goodwill that can pay off when schools seek a tax increase.

Several state officials said that relocating individuals and company officials considering a business move often call them to ask which schools in their states have been recognized. Some said they have heard of real-estate agents touting a school's award in an effort to sell houses in its attendance area.

Federal officials are optimistic the competition can be revived, given its popularity. And its supporters intend to keep up the pressure.

'Where's a great deal of consternation about this in Texas," Mr. Gula said. 'Where will be many telegrams sent."

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