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Few Schools, Districts in 'Ed-Flex' States Seek Waivers

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Washington

Only a handful of schools and districts have taken advantage of a new demonstration project that allows state officials in six states to waive federal regulations.

And the waivers, intended to spur innovation, have so far been requested mostly by educators seeking to circumvent Title I eligibility rules.

The "Ed-Flex" states, several of which have been in the program since last autumn, have granted only eight waivers so far--five in Kansas and one each in Ohio, Oregon, and Massachusetts. Texas and Vermont, which were assigned the experimental designation relatively recently, have granted none.

State officials say that schools and districts are concentrating on implementing 1994 changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which went into effect this school year, and have not had time to consider possible waivers.

"The problem we've seen is schools didn't really have time to get the thinking in place," said Ken Gentry, the federal-liaison representative and Title I coordinator in Kansas, who is overseeing the waiver process there.

In other cases, districts have asked for waivers they did not need. In Oregon, said state schools Superintendent Norma Paulus, 16 districts that inquired about waivers were told the pass was not needed. For example, some districts wanted to continue focusing their Title I money on elementary grades, bypassing secondary schools, something that requires a waiver only in districts that have secondary schools with especially high poverty rates.

Nevertheless, state officials expect waiver requests to roll in as local officials become more aware of the process.

Massachusetts officials last week distributed a mailing about their state's Ed-Flex designation to all schools and superintendents in an effort to drum up interest.

"Right now there's a low knowledge of it," said Alan Safran, a spokesman for the Massachusetts education department. "We'll take a waiver request tomorrow if someone came to us and said, 'It could help us for the last three months of the school year."'

Gene T. Harris, Ohio's chief education program officer, expects an influx of requests before the state of the 1996-97 school year this fall.

"We don't have a lot of glitz, but we've got a lot of people thinking," she said. "We tell people, 'We really want you to think long and hard about the barriers to student learning and improvement."'

A Nice Fit

The Ed-Flex idea was first raised in the early 1990s during debate over the Bush administration's America 2000 program and the alternatives offered by congressional Democrats. Those proposals were never enacted, but when Congress passed President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., attached a provision allowing the secretary of education to designate six Ed-Flex states.

Sue Hildick, Mr. Hatfield's legislative director, said the proposal seemed to fit with Goals 2000, which provides grants to states and school districts to implement standards-based reforms, and the Clinton administration's proposal for revamping the ESEA, which included a number of provisions to increase flexibility.

Ed-Flex states have the authority to waive rules for the Title I compensatory-education program, the Eisenhower Professional Development program, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, the Title VI block grant formerly known as Chapter 2, the Emergency Immigrant Education Act, and the Carl D. Perkins vocational-education program, as well as various administrative regulations.

"We are serious about untying your hands and building the kind of federal, state, and local partnership that puts the focus on teaching and learning in the classroom and not red tape," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said last week at the Council of Chief State School Officers' legislative conference here.

Regulations under civil-rights laws, special-education laws, and a handful of other laws cannot be waived.

Limited Creativity

However, all but one of the waivers issued so far concern Title I.

Three of the waivers allow districts to serve schools that had received Title I money during the 1994-95 school year but became ineligible this school year, when the new ESEA law required districts to put more money into their highest-poverty schools. Three others allow schools to operate as schoolwide Title I programs even though their poverty rates fall below the schoolwide threshold, which was raised to 60 percent this year.

Jeff Dorsey, the Title I coordinator for the Fitchburg, Mass., public schools, said that without its waiver, the 5,000-student district would have had to cut off Title I funds from three elementary schools, including the one with the largest number of poor students, because of a new requirement that does not allow districts to serve schools whose poverty rates are below the district average.

"We felt there was a need to continue to spread out the resources," Mr. Dorsey said.

Similarly, a small, two-school Kansas district was allowed to spend more money in a lower-poverty school so that its longtime Title I teacher can remain there.

Another Kansas district was allowed to bypass a requirement that most of its professional-development allocation be spent on mathematics and science.

State and federal officials say they had hoped for more innovative uses of the waiver authority.

"We'd like to see more creativity than we're getting," said Larry Austin, a spokesman for Oregon's Ms. Paulus. "It takes a school and a school board that's willing."

"I've been a little disappointed ... but again, as this rolls along next year, we should get more creativity," said Mr. Gentry of Kansas.

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