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E.D. Guide to States on Consolidating Programs Assailed

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Washington

The most recent rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act allows states to receive funds under multiple federal programs by filing a single, comprehensive application. These "consolidated plans" are intended to spur states to think about coordinating their delivery of educational services, as well as to cut paperwork.

But a Washington-based advocacy group, in a report to be released this week, argues that the Department of Education has failed to provide adequate guidance to states and also failed to extract sufficient assurances about what states' plans will do.

"Because of a lack of guidance, billions of federal dollars for programs which are critical to the education of children are being spent this year without any real plan at all," charges the report by the Center for Law and Education, which has often represented the interests of parents of Title I children.

Department officials "have become so concerned about flexibility that they almost saw themselves as Zen masters, to reflect the question and turn it back on the questioners," Paul Weckstein, the center's co-director, said in an interview.

The department issued a 31-page guidance document late last month to help states implement consolidated planning. It has also issued regulations and guidance for some individual ESEA programs. But the center rejects these efforts as inadequate.

"Consolidating state planning into a coherent whole ... is complicated, hard work," says the report, "Consolidated State Planning: Education Reform Set Adrift."

The department should have aided the states, it says, "by identifying, grouping by topic, and analyzing all the various requirements of each program ... and then pointing out relationships among them."

"Stripping federal programs of adequate structure and oversight," the report argues, "does not promote reform."

A Misunderstanding?

The guidance is not clear, Mr. Weckstein said, on such questions as what states must do to involve parents and the public in the planning process.

"Will federal guidance alone guarantee good Title I programs at the local level? No," Mr. Weckstein said. "Does federal guidance make a difference? Absolutely."

The report is based on the preliminary consolidated plans submitted by 50 states and territories last year. They have until May 15 to submit their final plans.

Federal officials said the center's criticisms reflect a misunderstanding of consolidated planning.

"What we're trying to do is help states and locals develop the education reforms that need to be done rather than lay out" a specific strategy, said Tom Fagan, who is directing implementation of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

He said the disagreement is "over approach, not over intent."

In a 17-page response to the center's report, the department notes that consolidated plans do not "relieve states of their responsibilities to adhere to the requirements of individual program statutes."

Consolidated plans, the response says, are not intended to focus on "state explanations of their means to ensure compliance with federal program requirements."

Even before the advent of consolidated planning, Mr. Fagan said, states were not required to provide detailed plans and goals for programs that are largely managed at the local level.

The dispute comes as states and school districts are implementing some dramatic changes in federal programs, particularly the Title I compensatory-education program, that were mandated in 1994. States have considerable leeway in implementing Title I testing and accountability rules, for example, and the early results are uneven. (See story, page 1.)

"The major concern," said Mr. Weckstein, "is that nothing different happens in a lot of places."

Lawsuit Looming?

The style in which the center's report and the Education Department's response are written raises speculation that a lawsuit may be on the horizon.

"We're not there yet," Mr. Weckstein said. "If we were going to, we wouldn't comment on it."

"Obviously, we're prepared," said Richard Mellman, a lawyer in the department's office of general counsel. "We're not expecting one. It would be a waste of a lot of resources."

Copies of the center's report are $25, and executive summaries are free, from the Center for Law and Education, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 510, Washington, D.C. 20009; (202) 986-3000.

The department's guidance is available from Tom Fagan, 600 Independence Ave. S.W., Room 4000, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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