Bills Would Tie Safety Funds To Proof of Success
An overhaul of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, tucked into the main education bills now moving through Congress, could potentially alter what thousands of schools teach about drug use and crime prevention.
The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, part of the House and Senate bills reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would fundamentally retool a multimillion-dollar federal program that is the main source of funding for drug education and violence-prevention programs in schools nationwide. Currently, districts use their federal grant money for purposes that include buying metal detectors and surveillance cameras and training staff members to identify violence-prone students.
One of the concerns of Republican leaders revamping the federal office that oversees the program is that government money go only into efforts that truly reduce crime and drug use.
Both the Senate bill, S 2, on which the chamber has scheduled to resume floor debate this week, and the House bill, HR 1414, include provisions requiring that only those drug and safety programs that have been proved effective in scientific studies be financed. That language was inserted following several embarrassing research studies showing that a majority of programs used by schools and underwritten by the Department of Education were not those deemed most effective in preventing crime or reducing adolescent drug use. The change is supported by the current director of the safe and drug-free schools office, William Modzeleski.
Both of the Republican-sponsored bills also include provisions that would give states and districts greater flexibility in using the federal money. The House bill, in particular, would merge the safe-schools program with the federal after-school program, creating a $925 million package for fiscal 2001 that districts could use for a wider array of purposes.
Democrats and some child-advocacy groups object to the proposed combination. They argue that the legislation should continue to provide grants dedicated to after-school programs.
"This is the wrong direction to go in," said Helen Blank, the director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, based in Washington. "We need high-quality after-school programs that meet children's emotional and academic needs."
Better Crime Data
Beyond changes in authorized funding, the House bill attempts to change what Republican leaders see as troublesome disciplinary practices. One provision hailed by some education groups would allow educators to discipline special education students for drug- and weapons-possession offenses in the same way as other students. Federal law now requires that special education students be given extra consideration before they can be suspended or expelled.
Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, said that while special education students may need special consideration in some circumstances, they should not be given special treatment if, say, they are brandishing a weapon.
"If you do that, you ought to be disciplined the same way," he said. "We can't afford to have students perceiving school is unsafe."
Republican leaders in the Senate have also packed their bill with several novel proposals.
The Senate legislation would require states receiving federal education dollars to establish procedures so that school districts could share the suspension and expulsion records of students across state lines.
"Our society has become increasingly mobile, and a juvenile can be convicted of offenses in Pensacola, Florida, and move to Mobile, Alabama, and the local officials have no way of knowing what kind of disciplinary problems that child has had," said John Cox, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who wrote that part of the legislation.
The Senate bill also includes a recommendation not included in the House version that would allow schools to use federal money to establish school uniform policies. Some civil-liberties groups have charged that such policies restrict students' freedom of expression.
In addition, the Senate bill would allow ESEA funds to be used to conduct criminal-background checks on all applicants for school jobs. Several districts that have adopted extensive background-check systems in the past few years have reported success in identifying criminal offenders.
While educators in general support the pending legislation, they are concerned that the requirement that only "research based" programs be financed might limit their curriculum choices. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or DARE, the nation's most popular drug education curriculum, for instance, has routinely scored poorly in independent evaluations.
"We can't wait for five or 10 years of research before we do something about crime and drug prevention," Mr. Felton of the NSBA said.
And Rosalind Brannigan, the vice president of Drug Strategies, a Washington-based research group, says that the definition of "research proven" is too vague.
"There are a lot of schools out there that are wedded to the programs in their own schools," Ms. Brannigan said. "Because the definition is fuzzy, schools will just say [their program] is based on the principles of science."
Vol. 19, Issue 35, Pages 30,35