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Private School Advocates Ponder the Impact of Block Grants

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Lobbyists for public school groups may be concerned about how big a hit they might take in the 104th Congress, but private school advocates watching the action on Capitol Hill are worried that their needs could get lost altogether in the Republican crusade to redefine government.

Private school groups are particularly concerned about proposals to hand authority over federal money to states and school districts in the form of block grants.

If lawmakers fail to include safeguards, "it's going to provide huge problems for private schools," said Michelle Doyle, the director of the Education Department's office of nonpublic education.

Members of the Council for American Private Education, the umbrella group of private school associations, met here last month to discuss such concerns among themselves and with their Congressional representatives.

Cape officials said the organization has not taken a position on the idea of block grants for education, noting that such legislation could include language that protects private schools' eligibility.

But the council is keeping a watchful eye on the school-lunch and -breakfast programs, as well as on rumors that lawmakers may consider revisions to such programs as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (See related story.)

(See education coordinator for the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities.

But Mr. Klatt said private school educators should not be worried.

"We'll continue to do what we can to insure that they receive the same amount of services that they [currently] receive," he said.

Insuring Participation

Many private schools--particularly Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Lutheran schools--serve a large number of low-income, inner-city children.

Such institutions tend to participate heavily in programs like Title I, which helps pay for remedial education for disadvantaged children. They are also eligible to vie for funding in many competitive grant programs.

They also receive aid under the only existing education block grant, the school-improvement program known until recently as Chapter 2.

But private school officials fear that they could get lost in the shuffle if many new block grants are created.

About two-thirds of states contain language in their constitutions that puts restrictions on public aid to students and teachers in nonpublic schools, according to an Education Department survey that has yet to be released.

Some states' prohibitions are so restrictive that private schools must receive some federal funding through a special "bypass" procedure, rather than from state agencies.

Such states would be unlikely to think about private schools when doling out money they can spend with few restrictions, private school leaders fear.

Disadvantaged children in private schools have had access to Title I funds, for example, because federal law mandates that such children receive services "on an equitable basis."

"Our concern is that similar or maybe even stricter language be included in the block-grant legislation in order to insure that our children are able to participate," said Elizabeth Fluegel, the interim director for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's office of government information.

"Some of the religious schools are where kids in the inner city are getting a good education," she added. "If there's a need to cut, what we want is that the money is going to get to the kids who really need it."

In addition, some lawmakers have touted block grants that would give decisionmaking authority to school officials at the local level.

"But the [school district] may decide that what needs to be done is repair all the public schools that are falling apart," said Sister Catherine McNamee, the executive director of the National Catholic Educational Association.

"The more discrepancy there is, the more chance there is that private school children will be cut out," she said.

So far this year, the only school-based block grant to move through committee is one that would replace the school-meals programs. (See related story .)

Private schools would be affected by proposed cuts in, among other programs, Title I, Eisenhower Professional Development Grants, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, Star Schools, and the National Diffusion Network.

David Early, the director of government relations for cape, said it was also important that schools--public and private alike--be given access to the national technology infrastructure.

As with other legislation, he said, "we're talking about simple sentences stuck in here or there to insure participation."

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