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Cuts in Title I Could Force Teacher Layoffs, Riley Warns

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Washington

As many as 50,000 teachers and instructional aides could lose their jobs next fall if current Title I funding levels are extended through the rest of the fiscal year, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said last week.

At a news briefing here, Mr. Riley released county-by-county Title I funding estimates for the 1996-97 school year based on the congressional continuing resolution that finances the Department of Education through March 15. And he urged Congress not to extend the terms of the stopgap measure.

That bill funds programs at the lowest of three marks: pending House and Senate appropriations bills or fiscal 1995 funding. Programs targeted for elimination in one or both bills receive 75 percent of last year's allocation. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)

If those levels were extended throughout the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, Title I spending would drop $1 billion from the 1995 level of $7.2 billion, as called for in the spending bill passed by the House. Mr. Riley said that would trigger layoffs and cut off as many as a million students from the remedial services provided under the federal program.

About 50,000 schools in about 90 percent of the nation's school districts use Title I to supplement the education of disadvantaged students.

"It's baffling to me how elected officials who talk about our obligation to the next generation are so willing to take away the assistance that youngsters need in reading and math," Mr. Riley said.

But the stopgap spending bill is intended to be temporary. While a yearlong extension of its terms would cut $3.1 billion from the Education Department's $32 billion budget, it is unclear what will happen upon expiration of the law, which Mr. Clinton signed Jan. 26.

Scare Tactics?

"We're in the middle of some dense woods, and no one can see their way out," a GOP Senate aide said last week.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, issued a statement charging that the release of the Title I estimates was an effort to "scare the American people" in order to gain political support for the administration's agenda.

Indeed, the department does not usually hold a news conference to discuss annual Title I allocations.

School lobbyists hope that Congress and the administration--which have wrangled off and on for months over long-term plans for balancing the federal budget--can agree on a modest budget deal that trims the federal deficit without cutting education spending.

Mr. Riley said that the continuing resolutions that have kept the Education Department running since fiscal 1996 began Oct. 1 have kept local school officials "in the dark" and forced them to assume worst-case scenarios in preparing budgets for the next school year.

Due to the drawn-out battle over 1996 funding, the president will postpone presenting his 1997 budget plan, which was expected this week, until March 18.

Moreover, officials at the Education Department and the Office of Management and Budget do not agree on how to interpret some provisions of the latest continuing resolution, department officials said privately, and this has delayed spending projections for programs other than Title I.

Still, most education programs are not feeling an immediate pinch from the budget impasse because most fiscal 1996 federal education aid goes out after July 1.

Impact-Aid Woes

One exception is the impact-aid program, which sends money to school systems as soon as an appropriation is passed. The program, which aids districts whose tax base is affected by the presence of federal property or workers, received $728 million in fiscal 1995. The pending House bill would allocate $645 million and the Senate bill $677 million.

Since Oct. 1, $250 million has been made available by the temporary spending bills, and $115 million of it has been sent to school districts or committed, with the districts in the most need getting the scarce funds.

Catherine Schagh, the director of the impact-aid program, said the department will decide soon whether to allocate the remaining money now available using the regular program formula or continue to give preference to the most cash-strapped districts.

Without full payments, many impact-aid schools are depleting cash reserves, limiting spending, and borrowing to meet operating expenses. Some districts are also losing interest they would have earned if they had been able to bank their federal money.

And the current difficulties come after several years of declining impact-aid appropriations.

"We're holding back 20 percent of nonpersonnel expenses just to keep from going into a hole," said Dennis Kachelmier, the superintendent of the Lapwai school district, which is on a Nez Perce Indian reservation in northern Idaho.

The 541-student district's impact aid has dropped from $750,000 in the 1993-94 school year to about $350,000 this year. Coaches in junior high schools and elementary schools are working for free.

The district would have had to borrow money earlier this winter, but it received $285,000 after a dispute over reservation property was settled.

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