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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Civil Rights Group Claims Softening of Title IStandards

Civil Rights Group Claims Softening of Title IStandards

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A civil rights watchdog group says a politically timid Clinton administration is failing to enforce a federal law designed to ensure that impoverished students receive the same challenging curriculum as their wealthier peers.

To appease a Republican Congress, contends a forthcomingreport from the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Department of Education is granting states and school districts wide latitude to adopt standards that may not be consistent, thus thwarting a goal of the 1994 revisions to the $8 billion Title I program. The result, the commission says, is watered-down curricula for students who attend schools in poor areas.

"Many state and local education officials have received the impression [from the department] that the new Title I is largely a deregulation law that will free them from bothersome federal conditions, and have failed to understand that the trade-off in the law is higher standards and accountability for results," says the report's executive summary, which the Washington nonprofit group released last week. The full report will be available later this fall.

The Education Department official in charge of Title I said the report unfairly characterizes the federal role in stimulating standards-based reform in states. The changes so far have been mixed, with some states and districts further along than others, according to Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "While the department recognizes the need to further accelerate implementation of the law, the fact is that significant progress has been made over the past four years," Mr. Tirozzi said in a statement.

Political Jockeying

The report asserts that the department began taking a softer stance on standards when Republicans won control of the House and Senate a month after President Clinton signed the 1994 revisions to Title I and the rest of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Instead of embracing the changes to Title I, Republican leaders started plotting to include it in a block grant and slash its funding, according to the commission.

"Almost immediately" after the elections, the report continues, the Clinton administration "began to exhibit reluctance to...implement key provisions of the law that were designed to equalize learning opportunities for poor and nonpoor children."

The key moment, according to William L. Taylor, the commission's vice chairman, came in early 1995. The Education Department told Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican, that the state could allow districts to set their own Title I standards. But the department did not require the state to define a minimum benchmark that its districts had to meet. Other states, such as California, have since taken advantage of that decision, Mr. Taylor added.

"The net effect of that is you can have different standards in Los Angeles than in Beverly Hills," Mr. Taylor, a prominent desegregation lawyer, said in a press conference held to release the executive summary. "That's part of the dual system the law is trying to get rid of."

What's more, the department has allowed states to evaluate their Title I students using standardized tests, instead of the variety of measures required by the law, the report says. And the commission said it found cases where states skirted the law's requirement that test results be reported by students' gender, race, disability, and income status.

The report also says that political jockeying has begun over the next reauthorization of Title I and the rest of the ESEA. Funding authority for the law will expire next year, but it is likely to be extended one year so Congress can give it an extended review.

With Republicans expected to retain majorities in both the House and the Senate next year, some GOP lawmakers will likely attempt to combine ESEA programs into block grants or use some of the money for private school vouchers.

The Education Department has started sketching out the proposal it will send to Congress, and sections of the education lobby will weigh in with their ideas over the next year.

One conservative analyst said in an interview that conservatives don't want to see "tinkering around the edges" of Title I and the rest of the ESEA. "ESEA is in need of a major overhaul," argued Nina H. Shokraii-Rees, the education policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "Block grants and some form of a voucher should be the key components of that overhaul."

But the civil rights group's report, Mr. Taylor said, "should serve as a major warning" for block grant advocates. "It tells you what can happen if you just put the money out there on a stump and leave it to states and districts to spend as they choose," he said.

The group says Congress should keep Title I intact because its principles are "sound" and states and districts working on standards-based reform through Title I are starting to show results.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 24

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