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Demise of Records System For Migrant Students Causes Concern

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Washington

These days, Sharyn S. Foster has a lot of questions.

As the person responsible for funneling a host of education-related services to roughly 6,000 migrant students in Polk County, Fla., she is used to uncertainty.

But, last fall, Congress made drastic changes in the federal law that currently provides $300 million a year to help states educate migrant students. As a result, Ms. Foster and educators like her across the country are facing widespread confusion about how they will administer their programs and exactly who will benefit from them.

A major source of their distress will be the loss, by the end of this month, of the records-transfer system created to help schools keep track of migrant students, many of whom move several times a year to follow the harvests. Without such records, schools lack information about the health, immunization status, and academic standing of migrant students.

In addition, eligibility requirements for federal aid--which provides migrant students with services ranging from tutoring and counseling to limited health care--have changed. As of July 1, many migrant students will no longer be eligible.

At the same time, the mechanisms for distribution of federal aid to the states are evolving.

"We just don't even know how to plan for next year," Ms. Foster said.

To try to answer some of these questions, the Education Department last month sought public comment on issues such as records transfer and funding schemes. The responses will be included in a report due to Congress by April 30, along with the department's recommendations for any interim measures needed to insure that migrant students continue to receive services.

A Checkered Past

State directors of the migrant program created the national Migrant Student Record Transfer System with federal funds in 1969 to speed the transfer of school records to the people who work with migrant students, especially teachers, counselors, and nurses.

But observers say the system grew into a mechanism for state and federal management of the migrant program, with little direct benefit for the students it was intended to serve--a population that now numbers about 800,000.

The National Commission on Migrant Education, authorized by Congress in 1988, described in its 1991 report a system that was largely noncomputerized, underused, missing vital information, slow, and expensive. Estimates of the annual cost of state participation run as high as $30 million, on top of $6 million in federal money. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

Congress and the Education Department decided last year not to renew the federal contract with the system's Little Rock, Ark., office, effectively abolishing the records-transfer system. The new Title 1 migrant-education law leaves the states to decide how to fill the vacuum, using part of their federal migrant-education funds.

But the law also requires the department to help states. To that end, department officials will sponsor a meeting later this month to discuss records-transfer issues with the state migrant directors and data experts, said Bayla F. White, the director of the office of migrant education.

Many larger states have records systems that can track students' movements within a state. But many educators fear that without a national system, essential information will be lost when migrant students cross state lines.

Louis T. Marsh, Florida's migrant-education director, worries about the thousands of migrant students who regularly leave and enter the state. Each year, roughly 25,000 of the state's 65,000 migrant students will leave at least once, and about 6,500 will enter a Florida school for the first time.

He said his state relies on the M.S.R.T.S. to find the student's last school so that the new school can obtain records through the mail, with a telephone call, or by fax.

"But the minute the kid crosses the border out of state we have very little we can rely on," Mr. Marsh said.

A few years ago, Florida tried giving migrant students their records on a "credit card" to carry with them from school to school. But the idea failed.

"They go on the road and throw away anything that's not essential," Mr. Marsh said. "We haven't been able to communicate that educational records are essential."

Searching for Options

The records are vital, educators say, because without them students may not receive credit for completed coursework, teachers are left in the dark about where to place new students, and children may not receive necessary immunizations. In some states, migrant students have a dropout rate as high as 40 percent.

The new law, which was part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires that states continue to transfer records. But it does not say how, so state and local officials are scrambling to craft emergency plans.

"I just wish they hadn't gotten rid of the old system without coming up with a new one," said Ms. Foster of the Polk County schools.

Frank L. Contreras, the Texas migrant-education director, is asking states to help develop a new national system, using more recent technologies than the outdated M.S.R.T.S. Officials in 20 other states have shown interest, but a new system likely would not be up and running until fall at the earliest, Mr. Contreras said.

Other states, such as Arizona, are considering an electronic records-transfer program marketed by the Minneapolis-based National Computer Systems.sic.lrs But Jane Hunt, Arizona's migrant-education director, said she was not yet ready to sign a contract because she was not sure how much the system would cost.

Federal officials have relied on the M.S.R.T.S. to calculate how many days a student spends in a state for purposes of divvying up funds to states. By fiscal 1996, which starts Oct. 1, they will need a new system.

Some migrant educators fear that some of the options floated by the Education Department--such as using 1994 data in giving aid to states for a number of years after that--would create inequities because the migrant population is so mobile.

Ms. Hunt of Arizona recalled that a few years ago floods destroyed the lettuce crop in Yuma, driving migrant families into neighboring states in search of work. If the funding scheme is not flexible enough, Ms. Hunt and others said, the money will not follow the children.

Targeting Mobile Students

Because of big changes in the program's eligibility criteria, there will be fewer children to follow. Based on the new criteria, but using 1993 data, the Education Department estimates that 252,000 children out of roughly 800,000 would no longer have been eligible for services.

Under the old law, students remained eligible for up to five years after they had moved between districts or states to follow a harvest. The new law will give them access to the counseling, health, and tutoring services for only two years after such a move.

But students who no longer fit the federal criteria may receive assistance for an additional school year if their schools cannot offer them comparable services through another program.

Many educators agree that the change will help direct services to the students who need the most help--the highly mobile students whose education is interrupted most often. In changing the eligibility criteria, the Clinton Administration sought to offer more services to each student than was possible before, Ms. White of the Education Department said.

But many educators worry that the new Congress, with an eye toward slashing federal largess, will seize upon the smaller number of students to cut the program's funding.

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