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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Groups Revving Up for ESEA Reauthorization

Groups Revving Up for ESEA Reauthorization

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The Title I administrators gathered here on a chilly November morning were eager to talk about what's working in the federal government's largest K-12 program and what Congress should change next year.

Schoolwide reform programs are good, they declared, and funding for preschool and after-school programs has really helped. But schools need more time and Title I money for professional development. Overall, though, they agreed, Title I only needs fine-tuning because the changes Congress made to it in 1994 are just starting to show results.

The requests, however, fly in the face of the wishes of some Republicans and conservative groups who want an overhaul because they believe Title I has failed to produce acceptable returns in its 33-year history. Some want vouchers for remedial services put straight into the hands of parents, and others want to turn funding for local districts' share of Title I aid into block grants.

Agendas for Change

Now that the midterm congressional elections are over, Capitol Hill is looking ahead to next year's legislative agenda. The education event headlining that agenda will be the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and its centerpiece, the $8.37 billion Title I program geared to helping schools with high numbers of students from low-income families.

Many education groups plan to spend this winter preparing for the reauthorization and shopping their ideas to congressional aides. For instance, the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators has hosted forums across the country to get input from schools on the kinds of Title I changes the association should lobby for. Last weekend, the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington planned to spend much of its annual meeting crafting legislative proposals for the ESEA . Many other education groups, meanwhile, are rallying their members to lobby for changes--or help stave off an overhaul.

"People are surprised at the power they have--if they write a letter and send that in, that could really make a difference," said Julie Lewis, the AASA's legislative specialist and legal analyst. But attendees at the AASA forum in Worcester seemed to be aware of the tough fight they will face to maintain the programs they like, she added, noting they will likely become lobbyists themselves.

A host of conservative individuals and groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Arizona state Superintendent of Schools Lisa Graham Keegan, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Empower America, are working together to push a reform agenda, which would likely entail more state rather than federal management of Title I projects and sending some federal funding to parents instead of schools.

Lawmakers need to make tough changes next year, because opting for minor tweaks while waiting for results hasn't worked, maintained Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. "That's been the line for 33 years," he said.

"The whole framework would be to put the power and the money back into the hands of the people," said Manon McKinnon, a policy analyst with Empower America, the Washington think tank headed by William J. Bennett and Lamar Alexander, the secretaries of education in the Reagan and Bush administrations respectively.

Several groups have already pitched their ideas to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the committee's Republican majority. But the committee will not issue a call for comments on the ESEA until a new chairman for its K-12 subcommittee is chosen. That could happen anytime before January. ("School Groups Pleased by Democratic Upsets," Nov. 11, 1998.)

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the education oversight subcommittee, has also called for giving parents Title I grants to buy private remedial services for their children. Any such plan, though, would have to overcome opposition from Democrats and some Republicans who are wary of vouchers. One GOP leader, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, has been consistently reluctant to support vouchers for private school tuition because he feels they would ultimately burden private schools with federal rules and bureaucracy.

Addressing Flexibility

Some Republicans also support combining federal K-12 programs into large block grants, asserting such an approach would reduce red tape and get more federal dollars to the school level. But the AASA and other education groups have told their members not to accept the GOP's arguments.

Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the 63,000-student Boston district, had a warning for those at the AASA meeting. Mr. Payzant was an assistant education secretary under President Clinton during the last ESEA reauthorization.

"It's very easy for us out here in the states to say, 'Give us the money with no strings,' " he said. "What I understood after being in Washington, the more flexibility that exists, the greater the danger of the dollars being reduced in the appropriations process."

Still, flexibility remains important to many. Four years ago in the 1994 reauthorization, Congress made it easier to provide Title I services throughout a school rather than targeting them only to individual students from low-income families. The move, which means schools can serve students without designating them as Title I students, has helped tremendously, many of the officials at the AASA forum agreed.

"Flexibility has made such a huge difference for us," said Karen Matheny, the Title I director for the 8,100-student Framingham, Mass., district. Now, if a teacher sees a student who needs extra help in one subject, "she can pull that child into a group and not have to say, 'I'm sorry, you don't have Title I stamped on your forehead."'

The Department of Education is hoping for a reauthorization that is more bipartisan than contentious, said Judith Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Some themes repeated by hundreds of school officials and others who have attended the department's forums on the reauthorization included: continuing standards-based reforms, using ESEA programs to improve the quality of teacher preparation, and boosting parental involvement, she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Pages 16-17

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