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When Budget Rhetoric Becomes Reality

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Houston

House Republicans want to slash $3.5 billion from the federal education budget, arguing that every sector must sacrifice to help erase the deficit. But they would have difficulty explaining that to Rossie Ramirez.

A federal homeless-education program helped Ms. Ramirez get her son, Antonio, into Houston's Rusk Elementary School. Title I remedial-education funds provided him clothing and individual tutoring. The federal school-lunch program feeds him. And Ms. Ramirez now works as a Title I aide.

"If you believe in miracles," Ms. Ramirez said, "all this has changed my life completely."

With 14 percent of the Houston Independent School District's $1 billion budget coming from federal sources, local officials wonder how they can continue to work miracles if Congressional budget cutters have their way.

The 200,000-student system would lose almost $12 million under the fiscal 1996 education-spending plan endorsed by the House. The cuts would be less dramatic under the companion bill pending in the Senate. (See story, page 17.)

While the final version hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee is unlikely to cut as deeply as the House plan, Republican leaders in both chambers argue that significant spending cuts are needed to balance the federal budget by 2002--which they say will aid Antonio's generation in the long run.

'Vegetable Soup'

The rhetorical war has stepped up in recent weeks, as President Clinton and other Democrats have made references to education programs a major part of their attack on the GOP plans.

"They [Democrats] are trying to derail our efforts to balance the budget," Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, charged during a recent news briefing.

"In the end, the best thing we can do for our children is balance the budget," Mr. Livingston said. "If we don't rein in federal spending, there won't be any money for education in the future."

But school officials here are contending with the present. And they say that federal money does more than pay for individual programs; it is an integral part of the patchwork of resources that supports the education system. Houston officials are wary that as one program loses funds, the fabric of federal and local resources that tenuously link large programs will begin to unravel.

"It's like a big vegetable soup," said Luis C. Gavito, a director of alternative programs for the Houston schools. "If you keep taking away the vegetables, pretty soon you have nothing left but broth."

"As programs start losing money, the infrastructure starts to dissipate, and this could have a deteriorating impact on student achievement," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Clothing and Employment

The story of the Ramirez family illustrates how a variety of funding streams intertwine within a school system's budget.

After leaving her husband last year, Ms. Ramirez moved with her four children to the Star of Hope family shelter--and into Rusk Elementary's attendance area.

The school currently gets a $105,000 federal grant to help educate some 400 homeless children who enroll annually from three shelters. Because the students usually attend Rusk for less than three months, they usually are not included in the annual attendance counts that determine a school's share of state and local funding. The school's principal, Felipa Young, said the federal grant pays for a clerk to keep track of students like 10-year-old Antonio and a counselor specifically assigned to this troubled group of children.

Antonio also benefits from the Title I compensatory-education program. Ms. Young will use this year's $124,000 grant to pay for supplies, staff, and field trips, and to extend the school year by five weeks. And Antonio is one of 7,500 Houston students who have received Title I clothing vouchers worth $30.

Ms. Ramirez, a Houston high school graduate, was such an eager parent volunteer that Ms. Young hired her as a Title I aide. The salary helped her move out of the shelter.

Rusk families also use a health clinic at the school. The city pays the salaries of most of the clinic's staff, while the federal government subsidizes two employees from the AmeriCorps national-service program.

Although 58 percent of Houston's 202,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and 26 percent are limited-English proficient, its needs are not unique, nor is its dependence on federal funds.

Results Questioned

Nationwide, about 6 percent of all public school funding comes from federal dollars. But the average federal contribution to the budgets of large urban systems is higher, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents those districts in Washington. The percentage for its members ranges from 5 percent in Broward County, Fla., to 18 percent in New Orleans.

"Every time you cut a dollar from education, you're going to hit the cities hardest," said Mr. Casserly.

Republican lawmakers have thus far been unimpressed with such arguments. Rep. Bill Archer, who represents part of Houston, argued in a recent constituent newsletter that more money will not correct today's education ills.

"If money were the answer, America would have the best schools in the world," Mr. Archer wrote. "Ironically, a closer correlation seems to exist between higher levels of spending and lower levels of school performance."

Mr. Archer, who could not be reached for comment, also blasted federal education spending as inefficient. That is a common thread in Republicans' defense of their proposals. For example, budget cutters argue that too many of the programs funded by the popular Title I are failures.

"The problem is that we don't get any results in that area," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "Title I money is largely wasted today."

Contingency Plans

Because most education programs are forward-funded, most spending cuts would not be felt until the 1996-97 school year. That gives school officials some time to plan. And, having heard rhetoric like Mr. Porter's for months now, Houston school officials are acting like emergency workers preparing for a hurricane.

For example, their plan to absorb the $7.8 million in Title I aid they say they would lose under the House plan would mean: cutting clothing vouchers for 7,700 students; eliminating supplemental counseling and social services for about 14,000 students; cutting between 200 and 240 teachers, parent-support workers, and aides; and paring up to 67 schools from the local Title I program.

"I can see strengthening accountability and taking action if we don't see improvement," said Susan Scalfani, the chief of staff to Houston Superintendent Rod Paige. "But we should not make children pay because adults make mistakes."

Educators are especially anxious about the future of fledgling programs that were launched with federal funds.

For instance, Houston has received $100,000 in planning funds under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and has an application pending for an additional $3.8 million over three years. Goals 2000, which offers states and districts funds to plan and implement reforms based on high academic standards, is a Clinton administration initiative that many Republicans want to eliminate.

Last year, Burbank Middle School used its first-ever, $165,000 Title I grant to start the Accelerated Academy, a "school within a school" program that enables students who have fallen behind to get two years' credit in one year.

Burbank's principal, Glenda Alvarez, said that too many students are automatically promoted after failing for a second time, and that they arrive in high school ill-prepared and much older than their classmates. Just under half of the roughly 1,000 students fed annually by three middle schools to the local high school graduate on schedule.

Burbank also used a three-year bilingual-education grant to start a program for recently arrived immigrant students. The $175,000 grant was used to develop curriculum and train teachers. In Texas, bilingual certification goes only up to the 6th grade.

'We Could Lose It All'

Burbank's limited-English-proficient students, who represent less than 10 percent of the school population, made up 40 percent of last year's honor roll. Ms. Alvarez said the materials and training funded with the initial money will enable the program to survive federal aid cuts.

But that may not be true for the district's plans to develop a systemwide bilingual plan based on the Burbank model. The initiative, which is to start this year, depends on a five-year $3.3 million bilingual-education grant.

"We could lose it all in the second year," said Jose Angel Hernandez, the district's assistant superintendent of special programs.

Federal aid also figures prominently in plans to transform the 1,250-student Barbara Jordan High School for Careers into one of the state's model career programs.

Houston Community College used a federal grant to buy the equipment for Barbara Jordan's new cosmetology laboratory, which both groups use. And a peek into a drafting classroom reveals an array of new tables, lamps, and computers loaded with the latest architectural software--all bought with $100,000 in federal vocational-education funds.

"When a company says we need kids who know whatever equipment they run, then we have to get it and teach our children on it," Ellis W. Douglas, the school's principal, said.

Those students include 17-year-old Isreal Campbell, who attends a mechanics class for special-education students. "I'm doing something I like," he said. "Without a vocational program, I probably would have dropped out by now."

Mr. Douglas said federal money allows him to give teachers 11-month contracts so they can spend one month a year working in their vocation.

Ray Reiner, the assistant superintendent of career and technology education for the Houston schools, said the district stands to absorb a $500,000 cut in federal vocational funds, which would mean closing the district's only career center, cutting four advisers, and relocating other staff to satellite sites. He has already seen grants for homemaking education and technology reduced from about $50,000 to $20,000 this year.

"We're preparing people for the workforce, and the mechanic on the runway is just as important as the pilot in the plane," Mr. Reiner said. "Just ask the pilot."

Local officials' fears about the impending budget cuts may sound overblown. But not to Harriet Arvey, Houston's assistant superintendent for student services, who has watched federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools aid drop from $1.7 million in 1993 to $988,000 this year. Further cuts could reduce that to $403,000 in 1996-97.

Nine counseling posts and a substance-abuse counseling program have already been eliminated. This fall, officials canceled a $450,000 karate program for 5,000 students that is designed to deter them from using drugs.

"It's demoralizing," Ms. Arvey said. "We take great pride in doing what we're doing, and basing it on research and programs that work."

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