Collaborative Efforts Face an Uncertain Future
Deborah L. Cohen
In measures ranging from the education budget to welfare reform, Congress is aiming to cut spending, shift more responsibility for social programs to states, and remove guarantees of aid under many federal programs for children and families at risk.
These changes are sure to affect the way each of the sectors that serve children does business. However, while supporters talk of increasing flexibility and consolidating duplicative programs in favor of a broader approach, it is unclear how the revolution on Capitol Hill will affect efforts to unite educators and human-services workers behind the common goal of helping children and families.
"You know that line from the start of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities--'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'?" said Edward Tetelman, the director of legal and regulatory affairs for the New Jersey Department of Human Services. "That's exactly the way we're looking at this."
Mr. Tetelman, who helped spearhead a pioneering effort in New Jersey to base social-services programs in high schools, is hopeful that welfare reform will encourage agencies to streamline the cumbersome processes under which families must apply for different forms of aid. He also thinks the education system will have more incentive to work with other sectors to devise effective strategies to keep disengaged youths in school and prepare them for work.
But the big dilemma, he and others agree, will be how to maintain a focus on preventive strategies if there is less money in the pot to meet the basic needs of an increasingly troubled pool of children and families. "We won't know until we see what the money looks like and where the state is going overall," he said.
Richard P. Mills, who recently took over as the schools chief in New York state, earned high marks as the Vermont commissioner of education for working with social-services colleagues. If resources were plentiful in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said, "we might have never tumbled into collaboration."
But the removal of stable funding sources for basic safety-net services "could simply exacerbate old habits of competition," he acknowledged. "Much depends on the pace of the downsizing of resources and the quality of leadership that emerges in both education and human resources."
Many of the new proposals advanced in the Republican-controlled 104th Congress involve replacing categorical programs with flexible block grants to states.
Most notably, pending welfare-reform bills would provide a lump sum to each state to serve the welfare population as they see fit. Although there are notable differences between the House and Senate bills, both would restrict how long a person could stay on welfare and curb welfare spending by tens of billions of dollars over the next several years. The House bill would also fold into block grants such programs as school lunches and foster-care placement, removing guarantees that eligible children will be served. (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1995.)
Lawmakers are also considering proposals to turn the Medicaid health-insurance program for the poor--which now covers some 18 million children and nine million mothers--into a block grant with reduced restrictions and funding.
Because many states are already experimenting with ways to blend education and human services, "there are a lot of good reasons to think that creating block grants which do away with a lot of administrative requirements will create at least a climate more conducive to collaboration," said Cheryl Hayes, the executive director of the Finance Project, a Washington-based group that studies funding of children's services. (See story, page 15.)
But she noted that the cuts likely to accompany social-services block grants could undermine collaboration. Medicaid cuts, for example, would directly affect schools that have used such funds to help pay for special education and health services through collaboration with human-services agencies.
"Medicaid cuts could create a gigantic hole in state government," said Mr. Mills, "and educators are going to get sucked into that hole, partly because we use Medicaid to increase our resources for special education, but more directly because it creates a drain on state resources in general which makes it more difficult to meet commitments for state aid to education."
'Basic Support' Uncertain
Increased uncertainty about how and whether states can keep up the same level of basic social and health services to disadvantaged families could divert attention from preventive strategies that require collaboration.
"When we've talked about collaboration, we always assumed the basic supports would be there--health care through Medicaid, food through food stamps," said Marylee Allen, the director of child welfare and mental health for the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group based here.
Bill Shepardson, the director of school-community collaboration projects for the Council of Chief State School Officers here, said state education officials worry about what children who don't get such help "are going to look like when they come to school"--and how much more of the social-services burden will shift to schools.
Schools wary of losing funds for their own programs may also be less likely to explore collaboration.
Jeanne Jehl, the executive director of the Department of Education's working group on comprehensive services, remarked that several districts have expressed interest in a new Elementary and Secondary Education ACT provision that allows schools to use a portion of their funds to coordinate social, health, and educational services. But if ESEA programs sustain big cuts, she said, people may back off from the idea because it "will mean deciding what they are going to stop doing in order to do something else."
Observers also point out that effective collaboration requires training and technical assistance that takes time and costs money.
"I don't think we can assume, at least in the short run, that collaboration is going to result in more than marginal cost savings," said Ms. Hayes.
States and communities that already have strong collaborative initiatives may be in a better position to weather the changes. Many states have made progress under the 1993 Family Preservation and Support Act, which funds preventive strategies for keeping families together and reducing foster-care placements. (See Education Week, Oct. 4, 1995.)
"In communities where they have done a lot of community-based planning ... and where people have gotten fired up about planning around a children's agenda, they're not going to let that go," said Judith Carter, the executive director of the Family Resource Coalition in Chicago.
Missouri, for example, has been developing a statewide network of community school-agency partnerships based on its "Caring Communities" program in St. Louis. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)
"In this state, we are going to absolutely defend and protect the Caring Communities effort and other efforts that are more front-end oriented," said Gary Stangler, the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
But he cautioned that reduced federal aid would likely increase resistance on the part of private social-services agencies. "When budgets tighten, you are going to see flexing of private providers to protect their funding," he said.
Some argue for redirecting the debate on overhauling social programs toward accountability--setting goals for school achievement, healthier babies, or less child abuse.
"If we can focus our attention relentlessly on these performance measures and then spend the resources we have to make the outcomes better, we'll get through this," Mr. Mills said. "But if we are forced by the speed of the decline of resources to focus on our institution or our program, we are going to have a very hard time."