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Riley, Lawmakers Debate Federal Role in Schools

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Washington

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and House Democrats made their case last week for a federal role in education--and the existence of the Education Department.

"Education is a national priority, but a state responsibility under local control," Secretary Riley told the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities at what was expected to be the first of several hearings exploring federal education programs and policy.

"I believe strongly in state and local decisionmaking. I have been a governor," Mr. Riley said. "At the same time, I believe education must be a part of our national purpose."

A Call for Less Control

But Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City, N.J., both Republicans, joined some members of the committee's new G.O.P. majority in calling for decreased federal involvement in education.

In particular, they suggested strategies aimed at allowing states and localities to pursue education policy as they see fit: consolidating federal programs into broad block grants, lifting federal regulations, and limiting the power of the Education Department or abolishing it altogether.

"My recommendation for you here at the federal level," Mr. Schundler said, "is to deregulate education."

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the committee's new chairman, called the hearing as part of his effort to determine which federal programs are "doing well, which are doing poorly, and which we should get rid of."

After the hearing, Mr. Goodling endorsed a suggestion made by Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., that the department analyze the success of federal programs over the past 75 years.

Such an analysis, Mr. Williams said, would likely turn up "legitimate programs that have significantly increased access, quality, and excellence in our schools."

Mr. Goodling said, however, that he would expect an evaluation of the largest federal K-12 program, the Title I compensatory-education program, to turn up mixed results.

History of Involvement

In his remarks, Mr. Riley sought to link American economic productivity and the broadening of the nation's middle class to federal involvement in education.

From the creation of the land-grant-college system in 1862 to the passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944 to the implementation of Title I in the mid-1960's, the federal government has promoted educational access and opportunity in areas of national importance, Mr. Riley said.

As the nation continues its transformation from an industrial economy to one based on information and services, he said, federal leadership in education remains vital.

The Clinton Administration's Goals 2000 education-reform strategy, Mr. Riley said, urges states and localities to adopt challenging academic standards but allows those entities to develop and implement them.

The law's flexibility and its waiver authority should make it attractive to proponents of local control, he said.

"Goals 2000 is a case study in thinking and designing a federal program in a different way than we had in the past," he said.

Noting suggestions that federal education programs be consolidated into block grants, Secretary Riley declared that Goals 2000 is essentially a block grant with a twist--a requirement that states set high academic standards.

However, Mr. Riley said he was willing to discuss modifying the law, an idea that has gained currency since the Republicans won control of Congress.

Shut It Down

Some Republicans were not convinced by Mr. Riley's arguments.

Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., questioned the need for the Title I compensatory-education program, which was created in 1965 to serve disadvantaged youngsters.

"There is, frankly, a sense of arrogance that only we in Washington know how to provide money" for disadvantaged children, he said.

Mr. Goodling, speaking with reporters after the hearing, insisted that no federal program is immune from cutbacks, including Title I and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The I.D.E.A., which guarantees children with disabilities a "free, appropriate" education, has come under new scrutiny as the new G.O.P. majority works to downsize the government and reduce sweeping federal mandates.

Governor Thompson and Mayor Schundler both entered pleas for the federal government to retreat from the educational arena.

Successful schools and districts "have broken away from top-down, bureaucratic government control," Mr. Schundler said.

Mr. Schundler, whose school-voucher proposal was critical to his election in 1992, said the Education Department should be replaced with an office that reports to the President and sticks to conducting research and financing innovations such as vouchers.

Mr. Thompson agreed, asserting that the country has a "historic opportunity to redefine the state-federal relationship and at the same time improve our nation's education system."

Governor Thompson said the federal government should "provide clear information about the success of states in achieving the national [education] goals," consolidate federal education programs into block grants, and "provide a genuine national assessment" guided by a "a more independent national education-goals panel."

Mr. Thompson said he was willing to receive fewer federal dollars in exchange for more flexibility in using them.

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