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Title I Changes Tucked Away in 1996 Budget Law

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Washington

Tucked away in the massive 1996 budget law approved by Congress and President Clinton last month is a provision that gives state and local governments more flexibility in using Title I money--while retreating from the goal of targeting more aid to the neediest schools.

The amendment, drafted by Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., and endorsed by the Clinton administration, was included in the section of HR 3019 that enacted an unfunded package of education reforms for the District of Columbia schools.

It eliminates a requirement--proposed by the administration and included when Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1994--that state compensatory-education dollars be used in Title I-eligible schools before they go to schools that are not eligible.

The Title I compensatory-education program has long had rules requiring that the federal money be used to "supplement, not supplant" state and local funding. Essentially, schools not receiving Title I aid cannot receive more state or local resources than Title I schools.

Before the 1994 reauthorization, an exception was made for state and local remedial programs whose purpose is similar to that of Title I. Those funds could be used in ineligible schools without violating the rules.

In an effort to target all compensatory-education aid to the poorest schools and districts, the 1994 law allowed the exception for state and local aid to nonparticipating schools only if they were eligible for Title I.

But districts in the estimated 21 states that currently operate their own compensatory programs, totaling more than $2 billion, found it difficult to make the transition.

"It didn't allow state and local officials to use the money as they saw fit," said Mary-Elizabeth Beach, the Title I coordinator in Washington state and the president of the National Association of State Coordinators of Compensatory Education.

Legislative Solution

Federal officials acknowledged last July that the new rule was causing states and districts some pain.

Thomas W. Payzant, then the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, told chief state school officers in a letter that "in enforcing this provision for the 1995-96 school year, the department will take into account the difficult circumstances."

But state officials still sought a legislative solution. Early last month, Judith A. Billings, the superintendent of public instruction in Washington state, sent a letter to her colleagues urging them to lobby for a change.

Department of Education officials reversed course and helped Mr. Jeffords draft the amendment, which repeals the 1994 measure.

"It was part and parcel of our overall goal to target resources," Jessica Levin, a special assistant to Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, said of the original language. "It just so happened that a lot of states were thrown upside down."

"This has been a fight that's gone on for 20 years," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center for National Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide. "It's a nick in the concentration that the administration was seeking, but it's a practical acknowledgment that states and school districts should be able to set some priorities."

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