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Accord Struck On Chapter 1 Fund Formula

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The nation's poorest school districts would get a larger share of Chapter 1 compensatory-education funds beginning in fiscal 1996 under a compromise negotiated by House and Senate conferees last week.

But the legislation that contains it, a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was threatened late last week by partisan maneuvering weeks before a highly charged election.

After six strenuous days of bargaining, lawmakers hashed out a compromise resembling the funding formula drafted by the House.

Unlike the Senate bill, which proposed a more dramatic shift in funding in fiscal 1995 and cutting many wealthier districtsout of the program, the House formula was designed to insure continued political and fiscal support for Chapter 1--as well as passage of the E.S.E.A. bill in the House.

The current formula will remain in effect for fiscal 1995 under the compromise, which includes elements of the Senate formula that will eventually penalize some wealthier districts and reward states moving toward school-finance equalization.

Few members of the conference committee were overjoyed with the formula, which was the last piece to be fit into the puzzle. But they were forced to wrap up their deliberations last week because the E.S.E.A. programs were set to expire on Sept. 30, and Congress is poised to adjourn for the year.

"It was very difficult," one House aide said. "We were very close to not having a bill."

Despite reaching an agreement on HR 6--which renews most federal education programs, authorizing nearly $11 billion in annual spending for five years--proponents late last week were scrambling to insure its passage.

Lawmakers hoped to bring the conference report to the House floor late last week and to the Senate for a final vote this week.

But in both chambers, lawmakers expected challenges from Republicans. Depending on who is asked, these moves are efforts to change the bill's language, an attempt to score political points against Democrats five weeks before the elections, or both.

"People are at their most craven, vulnerable point right now," one aide said.

A Partisan Standoff

In the House, the conference report was filed without signatures from Republican members of the conference committee. Republican aides said the lawmakers were upset with their inability to review the conference report and the impact of the new Chapter 1 formula on their districts.

But Democrats said the Republicans' silent disapproval is linked to efforts by the G.O.P. leadership to sabotage legislative efforts in the home stretch of the 103rd Congress.

"In the first time since this legislation has been introduced, it's seriously threatened on the question of passage," Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told about 100 education lobbyists at a meeting last week.

He offered them a "war room" in a House office building.

Mr. Ford was joined at the meeting by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

Mr. Riley brought an opinion by General Counsel Judith A. Winston stating that the Education Department cannot distribute money for programs included in the bill if it does not pass, because the fiscal 1995 education appropriations bill that the President is expected to sign this week makes money available pending the reauthorization.

"If the department were to proceed to try to expend these funds, there is a significant risk of legal challenge by prospective recipients who expect to be benefited under the reauthorization," she wrote.

Education advocates said that, although most K-12 programs are forward-funded--meaning that most money is not spent the same year it is appropriated--such a snag would impair school districts' planning, which typically begins soon after final appropriation decisions are made.

Should the bill die, lawmakers could pass a resolution continuing funding of the K-12 programs at fiscal 1994 levels. But schools would lose some $750 million in increased spending included in the appropriations bill.

Delayed Implementation?

Moreover, that outcome would delay implementation of numerous improvements the E.S.E.A. bill seeks to make, most notably standards-setting requirements.

"We've been preparing the school districts ... to do schoolwide projects and ways to do assessments differently for two years," said Bill Henry, the director of federal assistance for the Ohio Department of Education.

It is unusual for conference reports to be amended. But House aides said Republicans plan to offer motions to "recommit" the bill with instructions to change certain provisions, a procedural move that is hard to stop, especially when it deals with a popular proposal.

And House conferees decided to buck explicit instructions from their colleagues on school-prayer language, accepting a weaker Senate version that would sanction districts defying court orders regarding student-led prayer. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1994.)

In the Senate, a spokesman said Sen. Jesse A. Helms, R-N.C., was considering filibustering the bill because of the prayer language and changes in language barring the use of E.S.E.A. money to "promote or encourage sexual activity."

But Senate Democratic aides said they should have enough votes to invoke cloture.

In addition, some lawmakers might vote against the bill to protect their constituents financially. Analyses of how individual states and districts would fare under the compromise formula were to be made available late last week.

When the new formula kicks in during fiscal 1996, it would continue to distribute under the current formula all Chapter 1 funds up to the fiscal 1995 level of $6.7 billion. Additional funds would be distributed under a system of weights that favors high-poverty areas. Districts with poverty rates of less than 5 percent would not be eligible for this pot of money.

Districts with poverty levels less than 2 percent would be gradually eased out of the Chapter 1 program starting in fiscal 1997.

In a bow to senators, the compromise calls for updating Census poverty data in fiscal 1997 and 1999, and authorizes a separate appropriation to reward states moving toward finance equity and states that spend high amounts of money on schools relative to their per-capital income.

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