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Title I Provisions Designed To Promote Local Flexibility Spur Anxiety

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New Orleans

Provisions of the new Title I law intended to give school districts more flexibility are generating anxiety among some educators, who fear the federal promises of increased latitude may prove too good to be true.

Since Congress began work on revamping the compensatory-education program in 1993, federal officials have promoted local decisionmaking and flexibility. The Department of Education intentionally issued relatively sparse rules. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

But now, as state and district officials begin putting major Title I changes in place--including increased leeway to choose which eligible children to serve, an emphasis on high academic standards, creation of a new assessment system, and greater schoolwide use of the federal aid--some are looking for more answers than are forthcoming.

"It's a 30-year-old program that's starting brand new in a lot of ways," said Richard Long, the executive director of the National Association of State Coordinators of Compensatory Education, which held its annual conference here last week. "There's a lot of anxiety out there."

Throughout the three-day conference, state and local officials peppered representatives of the Education Department with questions about how to implement some of the new features and what to expect when federal auditors arrive this spring to evaluate their maiden efforts under the revised law.

The previous law required districts to select schools and schools to select students for Title I participation based on educational disadvantage. The new law allocates money to schools based on poverty levels, and children in those schools are eligible if they are "at risk of failing to meet the state's challenging student-performance standards." The law specifically states that students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency are eligible on the same basis as other students

Mary Jean LeTendre, who heads the Education Department's office of compensatory education, said the intent was to allow schools to decide which eligible students receive Title I services.

"I hope there are some good strong battles. I hope there are some good strong arguments," Ms. LeTendre said here. "You're going to have to look at it educationally, philosophically, and sometimes even emotionally."

That was the kind of response local officials took home with them on other Title I questions as well.

State and local administrators seemed to look forward to the department's new audit policies, which are intended to be less punitive and more focused on solving problems efficiently than in the past, according to federal officials. (See Education Week, Jan. 24. 1996.)

But conference-goers were unsure how that intention would play out in reality.

One Title I director in a Mississippi school district said the new procedures sounded good, "but we don't trust them."

The educators noted that they have had to implement the new law in the current school year, and audits will take place in late spring or summer--but the guidelines the auditors will be using are still being drafted.

"I like the message that's coming out," said William Erpenbach, the director of the division of equity and advocacy with the Wisconsin education department, to applause from others here. But "we need to know now what you're thinking on audit guidelines."

Title I proponents are planning offensive strikes in an effort to protect the once-impregnable program from budget cuts being considered on Capitol Hill. (See Education Week, Nov. 8, 1995.)

Title I proponents plan to call their congressional representatives en masse on Feb. 7 to weigh in on the proposed cuts.

The Education Department has been operating under stopgap spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1; it is uncertain how much money will be available once fiscal 1996 funds begin to flow in July. The House approved a bill calling for a 17 percent cut from Title I's fiscal 1995 funding level of $7.2 billion, while a bill pending in the Senate would slice 10 percent.

Indeed, members of the Republican majority in Congress have questioned the very basis for the program by arguing that Title I is ineffective.

"The bottom line of all of it is we need to show the naysayers that the program has worked,"Janet F. Carroll, the national organization's past president and Rhode Island's Title I director, said in an interview. "But we equally have to tell about what kind of children are we serving and what are the effects of not serving these children."

Ms. Carroll said she hoped Title I advocates would also inform their state officials of the effects of reduced Title I funding on state education budgets.

Meanwhile, Gerald N. Tirozzi, who was recently nominated by President Clinton to be the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, pleaded with the 1,500 conference attendees to help combat the budget cuts.

"We need to develop this clarion call," Mr. Tirozzi, a former Connecticut state schools chief, said.

He asked the educators to send him stories about the program's effectiveness. He also asked for predictions of what the budget cuts would mean. "Really try to zero in on individual students if you can," he said. "We need those success stories and we need them soon."

At an awards luncheon, the state coordinators honored 126 local, state, and federal officials who have worked with the Title I program each year since it was enacted in 1965. More than 40 honorees attended.

--Mark Pitsch

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