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Published in Print: March 1, 2006, as Drug-Free-Schools Grants Targeted by Bush

Drug-Free-Schools Grants Targeted by Bush

Program provides a case study of pros and cons of federal spending.

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When Alabama school counselor Angie Johnson discovered that some of her middle school students had seen methamphetamines in their neighborhood, she went to the Internet for lessons to help her explain the dangerous chemicals the drug contains and what they would do to students’ bodies.

To pay for the lessons, Ms. Johnson used some of the $8,000 in federal money her school, Handley Middle School in Roanoke, Ala., received this year under the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities grant program. But in future years, if Congress heeds the Bush administration’s wish, Ms. Johnson won’t be able to tap that source of funds.

See Also
See accompanying item, “Table: Under the Ax”

For the second year in a row, President Bush has proposed to eliminate funding for the program, which funnels money to nearly every school district in the country. The Safe and Drug Free Schools program, which has a budget of $345.5 million in fiscal 2006, is one of 42 Department of Education programs, totaling $3.5 billion, the president has proposed zeroing out in his 2007 budget.

Mr. Bush followed a similar strategy last year, with little success: Congress chose to fund all but five of the 48 programs he proposed for elimination for fiscal 2006.

Still, the safe-schools program provides a prime example of an Education Department effort the White House considers expendable in order to make way for its new initiatives, and the debate that inevitably ensues when a popular federal program becomes the target of the budget ax.

While most of these programs may not be eliminated in the end, they often find their funding significantly cut. And those involved in implementing the programs must expend considerable effort mobilizing to keep their favored program alive.

“It requires a great deal of energy,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying coalition. “It takes focus away from the job they’re supposed to be doing.”

According to Mr. Bush, the programs on the chopping block are duplicative, unnecessary, or, like the Safe and Drug Free Schools program, have received low ratings of success from government evaluators.

When it comes to fighting drugs and violence in school, the president wants to direct a much smaller amount, $55.8 million in the next budget year, into discretionary grants for prevention programs that school districts and organizations would compete for, rather than having the money be doled out on the basis of a formula.

But Ms. Johnson said that without her school’s current grant money, it would be hard to find up-to-date ways of steering students away from alcohol and marijuana and teaching them to control their anger.

“We’d make it happen, but we’d be outdated,” she said. “We’ve got to be current for the students to take us seriously.”

String of Critiques

The Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program, included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides money to schools for everything from metal detectors and security guards to drug-abuse prevention and conflict-resolution training.

This year, the Department of Education is sending $345.5 million to the states, which then distribute the aid to districts under a formula that factors in population and family income. About half the school districts that receive the funds get grants of less than $10,000 a year.

Effectiveness Questioned

• State grants under the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program, which began in 1986, have been under scrutiny for years. A 1998 Los Angeles Times report found that some schools across the country were spending money intended for programs to prevent drug use and violence on everything from lifeguards to clowns to a new van for carrying sports equipment.

• Under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, schools are required to use the money for research-based programs proven to be effective. Critics maintain that schools aren’t necessarily following those guidelines for the $346.5 million federal program, and that the money is spread too thin to have a significant effect.

• Defenders of the program say that new technology makes those dollars go further, and that small districts have learned to pool their funds for added leverage. In addition, they say, scrutiny of the program has pushed districts and schools to use materials that have been proven effective.

Districts propose their own methods of fighting drugs and violence in their schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, such programs must have been proven effective, although a state governor can waive that requirement.

The Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program has been under fire for close to a decade. A host of reports—both from the federal government and from outside organizations—have highlighted loose controls on how the money was spent by districts, as well as a lack of success for the methods themselves.

In 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported that some schools across the country were using the federal money in ways that seemed to have little to do with preventing students from using drugs or teaching them to resolve conflict peacefully: hiring magicians, buying fishing gear for students, and taking students to Disneyland.

A new ratings system developed by the White House Office of Management and Budget has labeled the drug- and violence-prevention program “not performing,” based on the Program Assistance Rating Tool, or PART, system of assessment. That assessment says the program has “failed to demonstrate effectiveness in reducing youth drug use, violence, and crime.”

The PART ratings repeatedly refer to a 2001 study of the program by Peter Reuter, a co- director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the Washington office of the RAND Corp., the Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization. The report found that controls on the federal money were lax, that money wasn’t targeted where it was most needed, and that schools were choosing to use programs that didn’t really work.

“The assessment was not that the federal government shouldn’t be supporting prevention, but that this is just not the mechanism to do it,” said Mr. Reuter, also a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park school of public policy. “It’s the structure of the program that was a critical problem.”

President Bush would tackle those issues with his plan to scrap the formula grants and put $55.8 million into discretionary grants that would require analysis and results, said William Modzeleski, the associate assistant deputy secretary for the Education Department’s office of safe and drug-free schools. The rest of the safe-schools money would go, along with money saved from the elimination of other programs, toward new initiatives proposed by President Bush like new math and science teachers and a private school voucher program.

“Anybody who looks at the math know it’s less money, but it’s wrong to concentrate just on the money,” he said. “If it’s not being used effectively and wisely, … it doesn’t matter how much it is.”

Under Mr. Bush’s 2007 spending plan, the Education Department’s total discretionary budget would drop to $56.6 billion, a decrease of 3.8 percent from 2006 levels. ("President’s Budget Would Cut Education Spending," Feb. 15, 2006.)

Rating Debated

Critics of President Bush’s proposal on anti-drug-abuse and safe-schools spending say it would leave most of the nation’s students without such programs.

“This is the backbone of youth and violence prevention that reaches all kids,” Sue Thau, a public-policy consultant for the Alexandria, Va.-based Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, said of the existing federal program. “If you get rid of this, nobody’s at home in the school being responsible for these issues.”

Ms. Thau said she challenges the “ineffective” rating given to the current program by the PART assessment. The program’s low scores came in part because the Education Department has not yet tapped into information that proves local programs are working, she said.

Mr. Modzeleski said that the department has tried to track closely the effect of the drug- and violence-prevention funding, but that those dollars are often mixed with matching funds, making it harder to pinpoint their impact.

He also said it’s hard to find research-based evaluations of such programs that accurately determine their success.

But J. Robert Shull, the director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch, a government-watchdog group in Washington, said the PART assessment is in some ways biased against formula grants, such as the Safe and Drug Free Schools program. Because such programs are not managed in a strong, central way, it’s difficult for evaluators to determine their effectiveness, he said.

“OMB assessors have shown a distinct hostility toward block formula grants, … so a lot of those programs that operate that way are judged harshly in part because of the way questions are framed,” Mr. Shull said, adding that the PART assessment is “really geared toward programs in which the agencies are able to determine performance goals.”

New Advances

Other supporters of the drug- and violence-prevention program say new technology has helped alleviate problems with the efforts it funds.

Critics often say the federal grant money is spread too thin to have a significant effect. But now, anti-drug and anti-violence curricula determined to be effective are available on the Internet at reasonable costs, said Jim McColl, the vice president of the health division of Discovery Education, a unit of the Silver Spring, Md.-based cable television programmer Discovery Communications Inc.

Schools can buy, for instance, curriculum programs and hundreds of videos and lessons from Discovery Education—all based on scientific research, according to Mr. McColl. In addition, smaller districts have learned to pool their money to increase their purchasing power, he said.

Many such options “didn’t exist two or three years ago,” Mr. McColl said. “You can’t just make these blanket judgments of a program and not look at how times have changed.”

Plus, a government panel has now compiled a list of programs deemed effective.

Brian Flay, a professor of public health at the University of Oregon in Eugene, called the method of funding the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools program inefficient. But the solution isn’t to end the funding, he said.

“Rather than taking the money away on the pretext that it can’t effectively be used,” he said, “the law should be better enforced to get a true picture” of whether programs are really lowering drug use and violence among students.

Those familiar with the federal budget process say it’s unlikely the program will be eliminated and that it retains many champions in Congress. Program advocates said they met with longtime supporter in Congress, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last month to craft a plan to shore up funding.

At a Feb. 14 budget hearing, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., lamented the proposed cut, saying, “Our drug-prevention efforts depend on Safe and Drug Free Schools money.”

Vol. 25, Issue 25, Pages 21,23

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