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Accord Preserves Federal School-Meals Guarantee

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Washington

After several days of negotiations, Senate leaders prevailed late last week and preserved--at least temporarily--the guarantee of a federally funded school meal for every child who qualifies for one.

House Republicans have pushed hard for turning control of child-nutrition programs over to the states in the form of block grants and limiting spending on the school-meals programs.

"This is a real reaffirmation of 50 years of bipartisan commitment to the nation's schoolchildren," said Edward Cooney, the deputy director of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But lawmakers did agree to some subsidy cuts, and the delight school-nutrition advocates said they felt late last week may be short-lived.

The proposed changes in the school-meals programs are included in a huge budget-reconciliation bill, hammered out last week by a House-Senate conference committee, that would amend an array of entitlement programs to help balance the federal budget. (See story, this page.)

The bill's child-nutrition provisions would save nearly $6 billion over seven years by cutting subsidy levels and changing eligibility rules.

The measure would freeze inflation adjustments for school-meals reimbursements at 1995 levels through the 1998-99 school year, and would also lower reimbursements to some family-day-care homes that serve middle- and upper-income children.

Immigrant Exclusion

School-nutrition advocates were especially worried about language. that would disqualify illegal-immigrant children and some legal immigrants from receiving free or reduced-price meals. Those provi- sions could place a considerable administrative burden on schools, which presumably would have to determine which students fell into the excluded categories, said David Super, the general counsel at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank here.

But state and local governments could opt to pay for meals for those children, said a spokeswoman for Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., the chairman of a subcommittee that oversees child nutrition.

Overall, the reductions in spending were not "Draconian," said Marshall Matz, the legislative counsel of the American School Food Service Association.

"In the current context of the size of the deficit and the size of the cuts being made to other programs," Mr. Matz said, "we're feeling it's a pretty fair response and one that shouldn't cause significant disruption to the school-lunch program."

The decision not to make a nutrition block grant part of the reconciliation bill took some observers by surprise. As late as the middle of last week, they had been told that the conferees had agreed to an optional block grant for states.

House Republicans had pushed a plan that in its first year would allow 22 states to apply for block grants capped at a fixed amount of funding. All 50 states could apply in the next year. Funding for those states would grow at a modest average of 4.5 percent a year over seven years.

The reconciliation bill that the House and Senate were preparing to begin floor debate on last week does not include a nutrition block grant. But budget rules may force congressional leaders to move some of the bill's welfare-reform provisions into a separate measure, which could also carry the school-lunch plan. In addition, President Clinton has promised to veto the reconciliation package, which would force lawmakers to draft a new version. (See story, page 16.)

And House members insist that the proposal is very much alive.

Indeed, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, and Rep. Cunningham issued news releases claiming that the Senate leadership had agreed to the optional block grant.

'Optional' Block Grant

However, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, which has jurisdiction over nutrition programs in the Senate, said that was not true.

"There is no agreement," the spokesman said, adding that Mr. Lugar strongly opposes block grants for child nutrition.

Observers say Mr. Goodling has been especially adamant about the block-grant plan. A longtime supporter of school-meals programs, Mr. Goodling had followed orders from the House leadership last winter and shepherded through the controversial House bill, which drew an avalanche of criticism and unfavorable media attention. (See Education Week, March 29, 1995.)

The Senate later voted to maintain federal control of the programs, and some aides said the negative response to the House bill was a factor in that decision. (See Education Week, June 7, 1995.)

The question of whether to fund school meals through block grants had been a big sticking point in House-Senate negotiations.

Sources familiar with the negotiations said senators questioned whether an optional block grant would satisfy a Senate rule that bars from reconciliation bills any provision that does not reduce spending. Senate Republicans said the idea did not have enough Senate support to win a vote overriding that rule, nutrition advocates said.

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