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'Flexibility' Bill Endangers School Aid, Groups Claim

The House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight approved a bill last week that would give local governments more flexibility in using federal dollars.

Education lobbyists say HR 2086 would conceivably allow school districts to use federal dollars to pay for vouchers for private school tuition or to pay private companies to provide school services. What is worse from their perspective, they said, is that the bill might even be interpreted to let municipalities use school aid to pay for services not related to education.

"We think this is something like a misguided missile," said Jerry Morris, the legislative director of the American Federation of Teachers. "It destroys the purpose of a federal government."

But proponents say the original purposes of the federal programs would have to be met.

The bill would allow communities to combine money from at least two federal programs by crafting a local "flexibility plan." Private sources could also be used.

Local municipalities would draw up a flexibility request, submit it for state approval, and send it to a federal review panel, composed of the heads of federal agencies and departments.

Distance Learning

A Senate panel held a hearing last week on distance learning and a bill that would establish a loan-guarantee program in the Department of Commerce to help non-profit groups buy satellite equipment for educational use.

Linda Roberts, the director of the Department of Education's office of educational technology, said the Clinton administration does not support S 1278, which is sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. It would authorize spending $278 million a year.

"The administration's national-information-infrastructure policies are based on the principle of allowing the free market to determine which technologies are most viable and appropriate," she said. "The bill would give an advantage to satellite transmission that may impede the development over other technological solutions."

The Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee, which Mr. Burns chairs, held the hearing.

In addition to Ms. Roberts, other witnesses included Kim Obbink, the director of distance learning and instructional telecommunications at Montana State University in Bozeman; Carl E. Swearingen, the president of Georgia Bell South Telecommunications Inc.; and Henry Marockie, West Virginia's state superintendent.

Mr. Marockie discussed the state's distance-learning programs for children and adults. In addition to high school and college classes, he said, the technology is used for staff development, enrichment activities, team teaching, and educational meetings.

Internal Wiring

The Federal Communications Commission announced last week that it will propose a broadcasting policy that could save schools thousands of dollars each and make technological advancements in schools easier.

The FCC proposed to make available a portion of the radio airwaves for free and unlicensed communications.

Free short-range, high-speed communications would allow schools and libraries to use wireless connections to the Internet, saving educational institutions the high cost of computer wiring.

A notice will be published in the Federal Register as early as this week, according to an FCC spokeswoman. A final regulation is expected by the end of the year.

New Regional Office

The Department of Education's office for civil rights will open a new regional office in October to serve states in the Mid-Atlantic region, officials said last week.

The move is part of a reorganization effort designed to shift more people and authority to the ocr's regional operations. About 50 staff members will be reassigned to the new regional office. They will begin training this summer.

"The biggest reason for this office is that we saw an opportunity to get more staff to work on the front line serving schools and students," said Brian Ganson, the chief of staff to Norma V. Cantu, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights.

Jean Peelen, who is currently the ocr's national coordinator for minorities and special education, will head the office. She will move to her new assignment in June.

The department will not announce which states will be covered by the new office until state education chiefs are notified.

It is the agency's 12th regional branch and will initially be housed at the department's headquarters in Washington.

Impact-Aid Amendments

The House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families approved a bill last week that would make technical changes to the impact-aid program.

HR 3269, which was passed by a voice vote, would restore a "grandfather clause" for districts that consolidate, which was left out when the program was reauthorized in 1994. It would allow continued payments to consolidated districts if one of the component districts had qualified under a section of the law that reimburses districts where 10 percent or more of the property is federally owned.

A second change would guarantee districts that met the 10 percent threshold 85 percent of what they received in fiscal 1995. The 1994 law altered the way federal property is assessed, thereby making some impact-aid payments under the provision significantly lower for some districts.

A third change directs the Department of Education to continue treating Hawaii, which has a unique, statewide school district, as seven separate administrative districts for impact-aid purposes. That had been the case under the previous law, but the approach was made optional in the 1994 law, and the department had opted to treat Hawaii as one district. If treated as one district, Hawaii would receive only about half the $17 million in impact-aid money it received in fiscal

Professional-Development Awards: The Department of Education will recognize 10 schools or districts that have created exemplary professional-development opportunities for educators in a new awards program, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has announced.

To win the awards, applicants will have to demonstrate that student learning and teacher effectiveness improved as a result of their professional-development efforts.

Winners will be announced in a ceremony in December. Each will receive an undetermined cash award, and several professional organizations are raising funds to pay for the prizes, a department spokeswoman said.

The program's remaining transportation and mailing costs, estimated at $2,500, will be paid from the secretary's discretionary budget.

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