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Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as An Unusual Alliance Presents United Front On Title I Revisions

An Unusual Alliance Presents United Front On Title I Revisions

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Public and religious schools often find themselves on opposite sides of the debate when it comes to federal education programs. But last week, an unusual alliance of 14 organizations--including the National Education Association and the U.S. Catholic Conference--urged Congress to keep vouchers and block grants off the table when it comes to Title I.

The appeal to resist drastic changes in the biggest federal program for poor students came as debate gears up over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes Title I. Several plans for revisions to the esea have appeared in both houses of Congress, and a House panel has begun hearings.

"We believe at this particular time, in this particular place, to say that we'll block-grant or voucherize the program is not politically viable nor is it necessary to improve the program," the Rev. William F. Davis, a representative of the Catholic Conference, said at a news conference here.

Father Davis emphasized that his organization's overall support for school choice had not changed. "We want to be very clear: We are only dealing with Title I, and we are only dealing with 1999," he said.

But he noted that even if Congress approved a proposal to include vouchers or block grants as part of the Title I reauthorization, President Clinton would likely veto it. "At this point in time, I think it's a waste of time," he said of such proposals. "It's not going to happen."

That view was reiterated by Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which will shepherd through the reauthorization of the ESEA, which was last renewed five years ago. "I would urge every education advocate and policymaker to watch what my committee does--not what others claim it might do, could do, or should do," he said last week in a statement. "I have no plans to 'voucherize' or 'block grant' Title I."

Original Principles

Title I was enacted in 1965 after a long struggle during which public school lobbyists opposed any bill that offered federal aid to private schools and Roman Catholic groups opposed any bill that did not. Ultimately, a compromise emerged around two principles: The program would provide supplemental services to poor children, whether they attended a public or a private school, and public agencies would oversee the use of the funds.

Those are among six principles the 14 organizations seek to preserve in guiding the reauthorization process. The groups also emphasized that Title I resources should flow to the most disadvantaged children, and that money from the program should supplement, rather than supplant, other education spending.

The groups also called for full funding of the program to serve all eligible students. President Clinton has proposed only a modest increase of 4 percent in the program's $7.68 billion budget, to $8 billion. Of that amount, less than $100 million currently serves children in nonpublic schools, most of them Catholic schools.

The alliance marks the first time since the passage of the ESEA that national groups representing public, private, and religious schools have come together to support Title I's reauthorization, said Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the 14 organizations. The groups began meeting just over a year ago to seek common ground on education issues.

"I hope that we're setting an example for people at the state and local level that public and private school people should start talking to one another," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which helped convene the meetings, and a former Democratic aide to the House education committee. "We should try to find ways to agree on things, rather than having all of us divided all of the time."

'Big Yawn'

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a strong supporter of private school choice, described the joint statement as a "big yawn."

"They're trying to pre-empt criticisms of Title I in its current form and say we want more of the same," said Mr. Finn, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. "Never mind 34 years of research showing it isn't working."

Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary under President Bush, has proposed turning Title I into a "portable entitlement," in which the money would follow the child, rather than going to school districts. And proposals for at least a limited voucher experiment are likely to surface on Capitol Hill this year.

The other organizations that signed the statement are: the American Association of School Administrators, the American Montessori Society, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of the Great City Schools, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Episcopal Schools, the National Association of Independent Schools, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Catholic Educational Association, and the National School Boards Association.

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 17-18

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