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Will Block Grants Aid State and Local Education Reforms?

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Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. After years of crying for more flexibility in how federal education dollars can be used, states might soon see if the oft-quoted words of Oscar Wilde ring true. Congress is considering whether the education needs of the country might be better met through a block-grant approach for distributing federal funds to states.

Of late, many states have focused their education-reform efforts on getting results, improving efficiency, and increasing community involvement in the schools. If a change in how federal dollars are delivered to the states could complement these reform efforts, block grants could be a godsend.

Currently, nearly all federal dollars for elementary and secondary education are distributed to states and schools in the form of tightly controlled programs, each of which targets specific categories of students. And dollars provided through these programs come all wrapped up with red tape.

Education reformers say federal programs, because they are so narrow in scope, are a drag on attempts to respond to the nation's changing education needs--a problem many believe is compounded by having the decisionmaking locus of control for federal programs in Washington.

In contrast, block grants, because they would be created by merging many of the existing programs, would meet the needs of a broader range of students. And they would have few regulations limiting their use.

The lack of regulations is what education reformers in the states, especially governors, legislators, superintendents, and school board members, find appealing about block grants. More flexibility at the school site is a much-repeated mantra among education reformers, many of whom think a change to block grants would help their efforts. But would it?

If the current debate is any indication, flexibility is a sure thing. The Republican-controlled Congress seems willing to trade flexibility for funds. Seeking to reduce the $4.5 trillion national debt, and egged on by a public disenchanted with Washington's one-size-fits-all prescriptions, many in Congress are convinced block grants are a silver bullet. They argue that states are unique and thus should have more discretion over the use of federal education dollars. After all, each state has different priorities and needs that are frequently left unmet by cookie-cutter-style federal programs.

The wild card in the debate over block grants is how much money the grants will provide. Will it be more or less than the state now receives?

State leaders would be wise, therefore, before jumping on the block-grant bandwagon, to remember what happened when block grants last reached their zenith. Ronald Reagan was President and New Federalism was in vogue. Spending for many federal block-grant social-service programs in the states was capped at early-1980's levels with payments to states decreasing by nearly 30 percent over the next decade.

If a similar phenomenon were repeated today, with 20 percent of state revenues coming from the federal government and with major constraints on the availability of state and local funding, the education system could be shaken to its core and education-reform efforts could be undermined. Federal programs now bankroll half (and in a few cases up to 90 percent) of the staff of some state departments of education. With 15 states running budget surpluses of less than 2 percent, even slight reductions in federal funds could send shock waves through their budgets.

If funding is reduced too much, any benefit from increased flexibility and more local control could be nullified. Block grants then would become the nemesis of reforms and a high-dollar crap shoot for states--a crapshoot in which the very structure and nature of the public school enterprise would be at stake.

In addition to raising questions about funding levels, the boldest block-grant proposals reconfigure every elementary and secondary federal education program except special education. Such a change in how funds are delivered, even if funds are not reduced, would transform education for better or worse, which is why a change to block grants should be done very carefully.

A case in point is the U.S. Education Department. The entire operation would have to change. Currently, it administers only one block-grant program, Title VI, formerly Chapter 2, which distributes formula grants for "educational improvement" to state education agencies. Title VI is only a $347 million piece of the department's $32 billion annual budget.

State education departments and local schools also would be altered, a change for the better some might argue, since large parts of most of them are presently aligned with federal categorical programs.

Even if these issues get settled, and states get all the money they think they deserve, the special-interest-lobby monster will spring to life before the ink on the checks from Washington is dry. Both defenders of the education status quo as well as reform-minded folks will converge on state capitals to fight feverishly for their constituencies and ideas. While they once focused on getting more money for education, their attention in a brave new block-grant world will be on how funds are dispersed.

Efforts of the status-quo defenders could seriously undercut the efforts of education reformers to make the education system more adaptable and responsive to all students. If that scenario unfolds, it is possible, if not likely, that schools and education departments might become even more subject to the categorical approach than is now the case.

Certainly the debate over block grants sends a loud message that Washington finally understands states and localities are where the education-reform action is and should be. But block grants may not be the solution they appear to be on the surface. State and local officials must ask hard questions before they embrace block grants, or they might not like what they end up with.

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