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Taking It Personally: Threatened Cuts Stir Talk at E.D.

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Like everyone else with an ear cocked toward Capitol Hill, employees at the Department of Education have heard Congressional Republicans' arguments that their agency should be downsized or even eliminated. For them, the issue is personal as well as one of policy.

Some are concerned about the potential long-term impact of budget cutbacks and such proposals as block grants--on their jobs and the nation's public schools.

But right now, the possibility that partisan wrangling will cause short-term layoffs is a much more immediate concern.

"Obviously, there is and has been anxiety on a personal level, but we've worked very hard to keep people informed about what we're trying to do," said Deputy Secretary Madeleine M. Kunin, who is responsible for the agency's management.

Fiscal 1996 began on Oct. 1 without an official budget, but Congress and the White House temporarily avoided a government shutdown when they agreed on a continuing resolution to pay for government operations through Nov. 13. It remains unclear what might happen after that.

"I worry about where my next paycheck's coming from," said Melvin Johnson, who has been a maintenance worker at the department for eight years.

Union officials representing department employees are particularly concerned that a budget agreement will not be reached by next month.

"People see it as a relief that they're working this week, and some people say that this has happened before. But the union is afraid it's going to be different this time," said Paul Geib, the area vice president of Local 2607 of the American Federation of Government Employees, who works on grants and contracts in the office of vocational and adult education.

Should a shutdown occur, only presidential appointees and one assistant named by each of the appointees, certain student-aid workers, and employees of the National Institute for Literacy--which has a multi-year appropriation--would not be furloughed.

Furloughs and Freezes

Meanwhile, the ramifications of proposed 1996 budget cuts are already being felt by some workers.

Six of 12 employees of the National Education Goals Panel and the only two employees of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education will be let go later this year, effectively eliminating the council, because of budget projections for 1996, according to the department. And a hiring freeze is in effect throughout most of the department.

An employee of the office for civil rights in Boston said that office has been notified that workers may be forced to take 13 unpaid days off this fiscal year because of expected reductions in the ocr's funding.

"It doesn't do a lot for your morale," the employee said.

But some of the proposals that have been floated in Congress would have a much broader impact. And some employees say they are worried.

"It's not just about the employees," said Mr. Johnson. "We need our youth and our schools for our future."

One 29-year veteran of the education bureaucracy said she is concerned about proposals to turn categorical programs into block grants controlled by governors.

"I wonder what will happen to our minority students and schools if there weren't a federal role," she said.

Morale Watch

While some congressional Republicans have called for eliminating the Education Department entirely, most employees do not believe this will happen. But the criticism stings some people who are committed to its mission.

"I think the issue from my point of view is the federal government has assumed a responsibility to educate the most needy kids in the country," said Tom Fagan, a 26-year veteran who has worked with the Title I compensatory-education program and is now assigned to oversee the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. "I've invested a fair amount of my life in this thing. ... Certainly I don't think we need to walk away from what I view as an uncompleted task."

Employees have varied opinions about how much the debate over the federal role in education has affected morale.

Within the last two years, 810 department employees--out of a workforce of about 5,100--have accepted early-retirement buyout offers as part of a government~wide effort to reduce the workforce through attrition.

"I've been able to talk to people before they retire, and a lot of them are retiring because of the rumors. They didn't want to be a victim; all they needed was a nudge," said a personnel employee.

But others say the cuts and the criticism have not affected them.

Sally Christensen, who manages the department's budget service and has spent more than 40 years in federal education agencies, said the current climate is different from that of the early 1980s, when President Reagan tried to eliminate the department, because the threat then came "from the inside, from the administration."

"I'm optimistic we're going to have a Department of Education. I've seen various administrations and Congresses come and go," Ms. Christensen said. "You retrench a bit, then you start over, and then you come full circle. And that's what's really going on."


For political employees, those who have been hired by the Clinton administration rather than through the civil service, the debate over the federal role in education has been invigorating and disheartening at the same time.

Michael Cohen, a counselor to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and the chief architect of the Goals 2000 program, one of the gop's top targets, said the political atmosphere requires the department to expend time and energy responding to misperceptions and fighting for funding in addition to helping states implement the law.

"It makes it less fun than it used to be," Mr. Cohen said. "It's certainly a lot tougher now than it used to be, but in general these are tough jobs anyway."

Ms. Kunin, Mr. Cohen, and others say they welcome the debate, and that they are buoyed by President Clinton's willingness to make education a defining issue in his presidency. And these officials believe they will win in the long run--because they are right and because the public agrees with them.

"The debate over the federal role in education has been a 30-year debate," said Susan Frost, a special adviser on budget policy who joined the department last year after leaving the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group. "This particular siege may settle that role once and for all."

Some of the career civil servants are not so sure. While they applaud Mr. Clinton's commitment to the department so far, they have been around long enough to recognize the volatility of politics.

"You just don't know if the president is going to stand up to the Republicans or not," said one employee of the general counsel's office. "We're told this whole discussion will start up again in January after the budget is settled."

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