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Imperiled Awards Program Said To Favor Suburban Schools

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WASHINGTON--As lawmakers and Bush Administration officials last week began discussing how to finance the Blue Ribbon Schools program this year, a House Democrat released statistics that he said show that the program "is fixated on success stories in the suburbs."

According to data supplied by the Education Department at the request of Representative Matthew G. Martinez, Democrat of California, suburban schools have won between 39 percent and 45 percent of the awards each year since 1986, although only 18 percent of American students attend such schools.

The proportion of award-winning schools in which students from low income families made up at least half of the enrollment has ranged from 2 percent to 12 percent since the program began in 1983.

The peak year for low-income and minority representation was 1986-87, when 16 percent of the winners were predominantly minority schools. Such schools have not won more than 9 percent of the awards in any other year.

In a statement, Mr. Martinez said the data show that the program "has either become largely a boondoggle for suburban schools and White House press secretaries--or school funding matters far more than has been recognized."

He suggested that the data disprove the Administration's argument that there is no correlation between resources and achievement. He also said the program's criteria ought to favor schools that excel at educating disadvantaged students.

Department officials say the program seeks to recognize a diverse spectrum of schools, and that reviewers are told to consider applicant schools' resources and the special needs of their students.

But the agency's reply to Mr. Martinez acknowledges that efforts to solicit more applications from urban and rural areas have not succeeded.

'Trying To Strike Political Blow'

In an interview late last week, Diane S. Ravitch, who oversees the recognition program as the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, accused Mr. Martinez of "trying to strike a political blow." She noted that some urban schools spend more per pupil than some suburban schools.

"I don't think anyone doubts that there are enormous problems in urban schools today, but I don't think money is the issue here," she said.

Ms. Ravitch said that one feature of exemplary schools is parental involvement and that, "in many urban schools, there is a distrust of the school system by minority parents."

Congressional appropriators last week began considering the department's plea to reverse a decision not to fund the program this year. (See Education Week, Jan. 15, 1992.)

An appropriations aide said the money can only come from accounts not specifically earmarked in law. That leaves few potential sources: discretionary funds, $100 million set aside for new legislation, and "national programs" under Chapter 2.

The aide said he knew of no opposition to funding the program from one of those sources, but noted that such a request can be vetoed by any member of the education-spending subcommittees. He said some might be angered by Secretary of Education La- mar Alexander's public criticism of a budgetary decision that aides say the Administration did not protest until irate educators began calling.

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