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E.D. Seeks To Use '90 Census Data To Set Funding

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WASHINGTON--Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander is poised to make a decision that will determine the disposition of billions of dollars in federal education funds--and decide whether some Chapter 1 teachers will receive layoff notices this spring.

At issue is whether the Education Department will distribute funds for the 1992-93 school year based on 1980 Census data, which have determined allocations under formula-grant programs since 1983, or instead wait until the Census Bureau finishes computing figures for the 1990 Census.

"We want to use the 1990 data,'' Mr. Alexander said last week. "If we can, we will.''

The more current data will reflect population shifts between 1980 and 1990. Using them would benefit states and districts where school-age population and school enrollments have risen, while hurting those in which population has declined.

According to the Census Bureau, the nation's school-age population dropped by almost 2 million in the decade. Only 13 states posted gains, all but 3 of them in the West. The largest gains occurred in California, Texas, and Florida.

The most dramatic declines were posted by New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.

Not surprisingly, education officials in states that stand to gain funds are urging the Secretary to hold out for the new data.

"The numbers reflect children who aren't getting the services they need,'' said Gail ImObersteg, director of federal liaison for California, the biggest potential "winner.''

Mr. Alexander agrees. But the price of using more recent information would be painful uncertainty for teachers and administrators who work in programs funded by Chapter 1 compensatory-education grants.

Deadline for Layoff Notices

While tallies of school-age population are available now, the Census Bureau will not have the more detailed family-income data needed to calculate Chapter 1 allocations for all states until at least early July. That would be too late for virtually all school districts.

The problem is that Chapter 1, unlike other federal programs, directly supports the salaries of teachers. Moreover, most districts are required by state law or labor contracts to notify teachers early in the spring if they will be laid off in the fall.

As a result, administrators may face a difficult choice between giving some Chapter 1 teachers layoff notices or risking the possibility that a funding cut will leave their districts with obligations to teachers that their budgets will not accommodate.

"If you're a teacher, you're going to find another job someplace else, because you have house payments to make,'' said Milton Matthews, Mississippi's director of compensatory-education programs and the president of the National Association of State Chapter 1 Coordinators.

Not all school districts receiving Chapter 1 funds would be equally affected if Mr. Alexander waits for the new data. Some administrators know from school-lunch counts that their enrollments of low-income children have risen substantially, and can safely bet that their Chapter 1 allocations will at least remain stable.

Similarly, districts that have shrunk substantially would know to plan for a loss of funds. And that loss would be buffered somewhat by a provision of the law mandating that every district receive at least 85 percent of its previous year's allotment.

But a lot of districts would be caught in the middle. In addition, Mr. Matthews noted, the 85 percent guarantee only applies to "basic'' grants, while districts with high proportions of disadvantaged students also receive substantial funding through "concentration grants.''

For example, he said, Mississippi received $109.3 million in total Chapter 1 funds in the current year, including $14 million in concentration grants. The 85 percent floor only guarantees the state $81 million, a figure that would represent a $28-million cut overall. Mr. Matthews also noted that the new data would shift funding within states and within counties that contain more than one school district.

The dilemma is all the worse for being a surprise for many administrators, since Chapter 1 officials said last fall that they expected to use 1980 figures.

'We Share Their Concerns'

Mr. Alexander said he is aware of the problem.

"We want to do the right thing,'' he said. "We share their concerns. We do not want to disrupt the system.''

The Secretary noted that he is required by law to use the most recent data available. There is a legal precedent backing the use of old data under these circumstances, however. In 1982, New York State unsuccessfully sued the department to force officials to wait for data from the 1980 Census.

While the most immediate practical problem is limited to Chapter 1, the Census data will affect funding allocations under an array of programs.

In a letter to Mr. Alexander, Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol of New York State said that budgetary uncertainty would essentially suspend for the fall semester projects funded by Even Start and the Eisenhower mathematics and science program, under which allotments are based on the Chapter 1 formula.

Chapter 2 block grants and vocational-education funds are divided among states based on population, although money is allotted within states based partly on poverty data.

"I hope there is a way that growth states can get the money they sorely need while diminishing the disruption,'' Ms. ImObersteg said.

Deputy Secretary David T. Kearns said last week that education and Census officials are discussing the possibility of sending preliminary estimates to states for planning purposes. Mr. Matthews said that would help, but administrators will be loath to make decisions based on tentative data.

Whatever is decided this year, Ms. ImObersteg said, her state will push to allow poverty data to be updated with annual estimates, as the basic population data are now.

"We need a long-term solution, or this will happen again in 10 years,'' she said. "And in the meantime, growth states will have kids that they aren't getting any money for.''

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