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Lobbying Group Outlines Plan for Need-Based Impact Aid

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WASHINGTON--The federal impact-aid program should be simplified and focused on areas of greatest need, a national lobbying organization representing school districts that receive the assistance urged last week.

Although the proposal by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools would result in a cut in aid to most impacted districts, backers said major changes in the program were essential to enable it to survive the Congressional reauthorization process next year.

The proposal calls for a method of calculating impact-aid payments by weighting impacted students according to their need--giving more aid, for example, for American Indians and students with disabilities.

The plan has been dubbed the "Phoenix proposal,'' after the mythical bird that was consumed in fire and rose from the ashes. Its title reflects the uncertain future of the impact-aid program, which appears to many to be a prime candidate for deep reductions or elimination in a time of massive budget deficits.

Member representatives meeting here last week voted 118 to 14 to back the plan. While many members expressed qualms about the proposal, the vote for it was seen as sending a strong signal to Congress that NAFIS is doing its best not to splinter into factions the way it did in 1987, during the last reauthorization of precollegiate-education programs.

"One nice thing about the îáæéó board is that according to the by-laws, they're required to represent all sectors of the association, so the proposal is a product of compromise,'' said John Forkenbrock, the group's executive director.

A Diverse Coalition

It remains to be seen, however, whether the coalition of schools serving the children of military personnel, the children of civilians working on military and other federal property, American Indian children, and children living in federally subsidized housing projects can avoid breaking apart, given that a majority of the 2,616 impacted districts stand to lose money under the proposal.

As a superintendent from a small, rural district that would lose about a third of its $600,000 aid payment put it: "I'd like to be a team player, but I'm not paid by the team.''

Under the proposal, each district would determine its number of "weighted federal students'' by multiplying the number of students that meet a certain criteria by a specified weighting factor.

For example, children living on Indian lands who are in special-education programs are weighted the most--at 2.025--while children living on nonfederal property whose civilian parents work on federal property, or children living on federal but not low-cost-housing property whose parents do not work on federal property, are weighted the least--at 0.2.

That weighted figure, combined with a district's per-pupil spending, its total annual expenditure, and its average daily attendance, would determine its aid payment. Districts with fewer than 1,000 students would receive an upward adjustment.

Biting the Bullet

With the sting from the last reauthorization still smarting, îáæéó leaders spent much of the conference trying to convince school officials to support the proposal for the good of the program and of the organization.

Without broad support among its members, the proposal--and therefore the program and the organization--might collapse, they warned.

"The community has to look at the program over all,'' said Judy Preston, a NAFIS board member and a budget analyst with the Brevard County, Fla., school district, which stands to lose $1.2 million, or 50 percent of its impact-aid payment.

"We were very disorganized five years ago,'' Ms. Preston recalled. "There was no plan, and it hurt us tremendously.''

"I'm not pleased with [the proposal]. I'm not going to run out and have a party,'' she added. "It's difficult for me to bite that bullet.''

Similar views were expressed by the superintendent of the Winner, S.D., school district, which also expects to lose 50 percent of its $160,000 in aid.

"That's a lot of money for a small district,'' said Mike Elsberry, noting that the district's budget is about $3 million. "I will still vote for [the proposal], because it's based on need.''

But others, like Paul Reed, the deputy superintendent of the Irvine, Calif., schools, were not as willing to accept such a loss.

Mr. Reed estimated that his district would receive $275,000 under the proposal, instead of $1.3 million under current law.

"I may be able to agree with the equity of what they're proposing, but I don't think it applies well in California, where we're looking at zero percent increases in education because of the economic pickle we're in,'' Mr. Reed said.

According to îáæéó, only 887 districts would gain money under the proposal, primarily districts serving large numbers of Indian or special-education children.

The Menominee Indian School District in northern Wisconsin, for example, stands to gain about $751,000 under the new formula, rising to an estimated $2.91 million payment for its 1,020 students.

Elaine Peters, a member of the Menominee school board, said she favored the plan. Noting some of the negative sentiment at the conference, however, she added, "We'd be stupid to even open our mouths.''

Department Mulls Choice Plan

Charles Hansen, the director of impact aid for the Education Department, said the Bush Administration will offer its proposal with the fiscal 1994 budget, which will be released even if the President is defeated for re-election next month.

Mr. Hansen said a department task force on impact aid has looked at a range of options for the program, including using a voucher or choice system for impacted children. But Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has not settled on a preferred approach, he said.

Congressional aides praised îáæéó for developing the proposal and trying to achieve unity on it. They singled out the organization's attempt to simplify the program and to base it more on need.

But they noted that the program is politically unpopular among many lawmakers, some of whom have called for scrapping it.

Aides have also noted that the appropriations committees are recommending that $500 million in impact aid be counted against the Defense Department budget, perhaps serving a signal that the program's different components will be distributed among other agencies.

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