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Political Perk: Steering Grants To Respond to News

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If anyone wonders how a nonprofit group in Philadelphia got federal money to hire a theater troupe to teach "anger management" and "empathy training" to middle schoolers, the answer is church burnings.

Last spring, after a rash of suspicious fires destroyed dozens of black churches in the South, President Clinton vowed to devote whatever resources he could to solving the disturbing cases.

"We must come together, black and white alike, to smother the fires of hatred that fuel this violence," the president said in a June 8 radio address.

Mr. Clinton quickly dispatched 200 federal and local law-enforcement officers to the communities involved. He created a special task force to investigate the arson incidents. And the administration earmarked $2 million from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act for an unprecedented hate-crimes-prevention program to root out prejudice and promote tolerance in public schools.

As a result, Woodrock Inc., a community-service organization in Philadelphia, will use part of its $222,000 grant from the safe-schools program to pay for the theater company, which will work with local 7th and 8th graders. Woodrock will also use the federal funds to pay a former Aryan Nation recruiter to help teachers identify students vulnerable to enlistment by hate groups.

"Hate crime is a very deep sickness," said Alden Lanphear, the president of the Philadelphia group. "If we don't treat it, it will destroy our country," he said.

Funding for hate-crimes prevention under the safe-schools law is a good example of how the White House and federal agencies steer money from existing programs to meet political goals and respond to what tops the day's news.

Such power is one of the perks of the presidency and often allows an administration to set a tone that differs from the chief aims of lawmakers who sponsor and back legislation in Congress.

The $2 million for seven hate-crimes programs came from a $25 million discretionary fund that the Department of Education controls.

The New Haven, Conn., police department's bias-crime unit will use a $124,000 grant to train students to talk to their peers about racial diversity. The unit will also develop a hate-crimes handbook for school officials.

With its $210,000 award, the Anti-Defamation League's World of Difference Institute in New York City will offer legal seminars for teachers in four school districts. In areas that have already experienced racially motivated crimes, school officials need to learn that cross burnings, threatening phone calls, hate mail, vandalism, and the destruction of religious symbols can all be prosecuted, an ADL spokeswoman said.

Waste of Money?

Such aims rankle some Republicans who back the thrust of the law. In the case of the safe-schools law, many observers say the program should stick to the basic aim of keeping drugs and guns out of schools.

"It's impossible to stop hate crimes from a distance," argued former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who worked in Bob Dole's presidential campaign.

As drug use among teenagers soars, "money provided for combating drugs in the schools should not be used for things like theatrical productions to teach kids how to get along," added Elizabeth Morra, a spokeswomen for the House Appropriations Committee.

And some Republican aides in Congress charged that the hate-crimes grant program was little more than a another way to advance President Clinton's political agenda in advance of this week's election.

"In this administration, they take great pains to address problems in an election year, especially with taxpayers' money," said Rick May, the staff director for the House Budget Committee. Mr. May also said he found it curious that nearly all the program's grantees were located in states that were contested in the presidential election.

But William Modzeleski, the director of the drug-free-schools program, took exception.

"This has nothing to do with battleground states," he said. "We have a problem with racism and hatred and violence in this country, and the administration is taking an innovative approach."

Marking Territory

Presidents often distinguish themselves with efforts paid for with discretionary funds because the hulking federal bureaucracy remains largely the same from one administration to the next.

While most presidents enact only a few lasting changes during their tenure, a chief executive can sweep through dozens of smaller initiatives during a four-year term, one analyst said.

Often, these signature programs evaporate when an opposing political party assumes control of the White House. Sometimes, however, they are simply reconfigured under a new administration.

One program that has seen many incarnations over the past decade is an adolescent-health-education program run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Under President Bush, the Title XX program's focus was to promote adoption and discourage abortion in sex education programs. Under President Clinton, the office has promoted "responsible" family planning.

Whether or not these presidential enterprises catch on, only a few are ever proven to have a lasting impact, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

"These programs are popular because of some headline, and they ebb as publicity passes," he said. "They don't leave a lot of residue."

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