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Proposal Would Link School Dollars, Proven Models

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Washington

House appropriators are hoping a small slice of the Department of Education's next budget will make a big impact on school reform, especially in the nation's poorest areas.

The appropriators have set aside $200 million of the $29.1 billion the department would receive in the House fiscal 1998 spending bill for an initiative on "whole-school change." If passed and signed into law, the program would provide grants to schools to implement proven models for restructuring. Three-quarters of the money would be reserved for schools in the federal Title I program.

"We now have proposals to reform our schools that are not just academic theories, but are producing real results in real classrooms across America," say the amendment's sponsors in a report accompanying the appropriations bill for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. "With a relatively small amount of outside resources, communities can restructure schools in ways that make them significantly more effective."

As members of Congress debated education appropriations bills late last week, the House amendment offered a glimpse of what the future may hold for Title I, the flagship federal education program for disadvantaged students, which the House has slated to receive $8.2 billion in the 1998-99 school year. The final figure will be decided after both the House and Senate pass their bills and negotiate a compromise this fall, probably this month.

The Senate bill does not have a similar amendment. ("House, Senate Debates Postpone Votes on Appropriations," in This Week's News.)

"It's a precursor of what may go into the next reauthorization" of Title I, said John F. Jennings, a former education aide to House Democrats who is the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit working to build public support for schools. "To me, it's a sea change. For the first time, the federal government is willing to say: 'This is the best way to improve education.'"

Report Cites Programs

In their report, Reps. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., and David R. Obey, D-Wis.--the plan's authors and the two House members with the most influence over federal school spending--cited four examples of exemplary programs: the Comer School Development Program, the Coalition of Essential Schools, the Accelerated Schools approach, and the Success for All model. The accompanying legislation would not mandate that schools choose from the four examples, but instead from proven programs generally.

Their proposal would provide competitive grants of up to $50,000 each for schools to pay for training and other costs associated with such reform efforts. State education agencies would oversee competitions for the $150 million appropriated for Title I schools. The federal Department of Education would distribute the grants for the remaining $50 million, which would be earmarked for the Fund for the Improvement of Education, a small piece of the department's budget usually reserved for the education secretary's priorities.

States would decide exactly which models Title I schools could choose based on recommendations from the U.S. secretary of education. If a state decided to add its own program recommendations to the list, it would need to verify their effectiveness based on research.

The amendment's emphasis on replicating proven programs is attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike. Both sides are pointing to research that shows past approaches to Title I haven't worked, but that this one might. Education Department officials also support the concept, as do some prominent researchers. But one researcher said he wished the proposal included money to help the proven programs meet any increased demand from schools because of the initiative.

"If this passes, it will be a wonderful mechanism for helping schools adopt these [models], but it would do nothing whatsoever to help supply them," said Robert E. Slavin, founder of the Success for All model and co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Anybody with a plausible program will be swamped."

Chapter 1's Failings

The impetus for the amendment comes from two fronts. Earlier this year, an Education Department report showed that the Chapter 1 program--the precursor to Title I--failed to reduce the achievement gap between high achievers and the low achievers who received supplementary help from Chapter 1. ("Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap," April 2, 1997.

But a companion study found that strategies designed by outside experts and implemented by schools have been more effective than home-grown programs. ("Chapter 1 Study Documents Impact of Poverty," April 16, 1997.)

Subsequently, some researchers said that federal programs such as Title I should encourage schools to adopt proven programs, rather than design their own efforts, as is now the case.

But conservatives question whether the federal government should be asking schools to follow such reform models to qualify for additional money.

The amendment is an example of the "carrot-and-stick approach'' the Education Department uses to control local curriculum, Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., said when the House started debating its appropriations bill.

But the amendment's backers point to the success of the New American Schools, an initiative launched by President Bush and financed by businesses and foundations.

The Arlington, Va., nonprofit corporation has underwritten the development of eight models, including versions of the Comer schools, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Success for All, and a model endorsed by the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis think tank. Some 700 schools in 30 states are now using New American Schools' models.

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