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Federal File: Capitalist concerns; The disability factor

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If districts continue hiring private, for-profit companies to run schools, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights may study the issue, the panel's chairwoman said last week.

"I would propose to my colleagues that, if these cities keep hiring these private firms, we do a study to evaluate educational opportunity'' under such arrangements, Mary Frances Berry said in an interview.

Such firms as Education Alternatives Inc. and Public Strategies Inc., she said, do not know the "ingredients'' that help children learn.

Her concern surfaced last month when she addressed the Minneapolis Urban League's annual dinner and criticized Baltimore for hiring E.A.I. to run some schools. Ms. Berry said she was unaware when she made the remarks that Peter Hutchinson, the head of Public Strategies, which was hired by the Minneapolis school board last fall, was in the audience.

However, Ms. Berry said last week that it would take a few years to determine whether students, particularly those from minority and low-income groups, have equal educational opportunities in districts with private management.

Ms. Berry, a University of Pennsylvania professor, was appointed to the commission by President Jimmy Carter and named chairwoman last year by President Clinton.

The Education Department has been granting Blue Ribbon Schools awards to schools that are not accessible to people with disabilities, according to advocates who want the agency to change that policy.

Elise and Martin Baach, whose son uses a wheelchair and thus cannot attend Chevy Chase (Md.) Elementary School, complained about the school's nomination for the federal excellence award.

In a letter from the department, they were told that "only if a school or district is out of compliance with [federal law] can we exclude them from participating in the Blue Ribbon Schools program.''

The department does not inspect each school for its accommodation of people with disabilities, and a school will be disqualified on that basis only if the department's office for civil rights has found a violation, officials said.

However, while this year's awards are already set to go out this month, a spokeswoman said that accessibility for the disabled may be among the criteria for next year's applicants.

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