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Proposal Expected on Merging Education, Labor Departments

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Washington

A key moderate House Republican is expected to announce this week a proposal that could serve as the vehicle for scrapping the Education Department as a separate agency.

Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who is a member of the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, told 700 members of the National School Boards Association gathered here last week that the Education and Labor departments should be merged into one agency that would oversee federal programs in those two areas.

"If we're going to meet our commitments, we have to find a way to consolidate the bureaucracy at the top," Mr. Gunderson told the N.S.B.A.

Many conservatives, including Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett, both former Secretaries of Education, have called for the outright abolition of the Education Department. And legislation seeking its elimination is expected to be introduced in the Republican-controlled Congress.

But the proposal that Mr. Gunderson planned to put forth this week by could serve as a middle ground between opponents and proponents of a separate education agency. Mr. Gunderson is among the moderate Republicans in the House and the Senate who have expressed a belief that some federal involvement in education is appropriate.

Mr. Gunderson reportedly has run his merger idea past Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.; Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the education committee; other panel members; and Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Budget Committee.

An aide to Mr. Goodling said last week that many Republicans are "in general agreement" with the proposal. While the merger will be outlined this week, legislation will not be offered until a later date.

"Conceptually, most people are in favor, but a lot of the details have to be worked out," the aide to Mr. Goodling said.

Spokesmen for Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Kasich could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Gingrich has said he favors abolishing the department. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

Mr. Gunderson told the N.S.B.A. that the new agency should be called the "Department of Education and Employment."

A spokeswoman for the Education Department said officials there could not comment until they had seen the proposal or legislative language.

Child Nutrition

On a separate issue, Mr. Gunderson told the school board members that including a proposal to combine child-nutrition programs into a block grant in the House G.O.P.'s welfare-reform package was a "mistake."

The House Republicans' plan, part of the "Contract With America," would lump all 10 federal food-assistance programs--including school breakfast and lunch--into a block grant to be administered by the states. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1995.)

"I don't think school lunch belongs in the welfare-reform debate in any way, shape, or form," Mr. Gunderson said to strong applause. He predicted that child-nutrition programs would be pulled from the proposed "personal-responsibility act."

But, Mr. Gunderson was quick to add, "that doesn't mean we're not going to look at a child-nutrition block grant" because of what he and others see as overregulation by federal authorities.

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