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Federal File: Backing off

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As next week's deadline approaches, it appears that all the states have passed the gun-free-schools legislation mandated by a 1994 federal law or are on their way to doing so.

That should come as a relief to officials at the Department of Education, who were busy last week devising plans to deal with recalcitrant states--without cutting off their federal education aid.

Last year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education ACT included a provision requiring states to pass legislation by this Oct. 20 that mandates a one-year expulsion of any student who brings a gun to school.

President Clinton hailed the law in a speech last October at a California high school and signed a memorandum directing the Education Department to "vigorously enforce" it.

"'Zero tolerance' is a common-sense policy," Mr. Clinton said. "That's why this order directs the Secretary of Education to withhold funding from the states that don't comply with the law."

However, federal officials said last week that they did not necessarily intend to impose such a drastic penalty, arguing that the wording of the law allows them to consider a range of sanctions.

"States are in jeopardy of losing funds, but we haven't decided what other corrective action can be taken if states are not in compliance," said William Modzeleski, the director of the department's safe- and drug-free-schools program.

Some congressional aides who worked on the legislation disputed that interpretation, expressing surprise at what they viewed as the department's retreat from a tough position. "The supporters of the ACT absolutely believed that every penny would be taken away from states that didn't adopt a law," said one aide.

And most state officials also believed that millions of dollars were at stake. "The primary motivation was not to lose money," said Jane Henkel, a legislative researcher in Wisconsin, which is expected to pass a gun-free-schools measure this week.

In any case, the idea proved politically popular and the mandate sparked little controversy in the states.

Forty-six have adopted the required laws, and bills are nearing passage in Massachusetts and Arizona as well as Wisconsin. Kentucky received a waiver, since its legislature was not in session this year.

--Jessica Portner

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