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House Cuts Hit Home

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Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to slash $3.5 billion from the federal education budget, arguing that every sector must sacrifice to help erase the deficit. But they would have difficulty explaining that to Rossie Ramirez.

A federal homeless education program helped Ramirez get her son, Antonio, into Houston's Rusk Elementary School. Federal Title I remedial education funds provide him with clothing and individual tutoring. The federal school-lunch program feeds him. And Ramirez herself now works as a Title I aide. "If you believe in miracles,'' Ramirez says, "all this has changed my life completely.''

With 14 percent of the Houston Independent School District's $1 billion budget coming from federal sources, local officials wonder how they can continue to work such miracles if Congressional budget cutters have their way. The 200,000-student system would lose almost $12 million under the fiscal 1996 education-spending plan endorsed by the House. The cuts would be less dramatic under the companion bill pending, at press time, in the Senate.

While the final version hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee is unlikely to cut as deeply as the House plan, Republican leaders in both chambers argue that significant spending cuts are needed to balance the federal budget by 2002--which they say will aid Antonio Ramirez's generation in the long run.

President Clinton and congressional Democrats stepped up the rhetorical war earlier this fall, specifically criticizing the proposed education cuts in their attacks on the GOP's overall plan. Republicans, of course, struck back. "[The Democrats] are trying to derail our efforts to balance the budget,'' Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, charged. "In the end, the best thing we can do for our children is balance the budget. If we don't rein in federal spending, there won't be any money for education in the future.''

While federal policymakers duke it out in Washington, school officials in Houston have everyday concerns on their minds. Federal money, they say, does much more than pay for individual programs; it is an integral part of the patchwork of resources that supports the education system. If just one program loses funds, they say, the fabric will begin to unravel.

Luis Gavito, director of alternative programs for the Houston schools, offers a different metaphor. "It's like a big vegetable soup,'' he says. "If you keep taking away the vegetables, pretty soon you have nothing left but broth.''

That would particularly hurt families like Rossie Ramirez's. After leaving her husband last year, Ramirez moved with her four children to the Star of Hope homeless shelter, which is in the Rusk Elementary attendance area. The school currently gets a $105,000 federal grant to help educate some 400 homeless children from three shelters. Because many of these students attend Rusk for less than three months, they usually aren't included in the annual attendance counts that determine the school's share of state and local funding. Rusk principal Felipa Young says the federal grant pays for a clerk to keep track of students like 10-year-old Antonio and a counselor who spends all of her time working with this group of troubled youngsters.

Antonio also benefits from the Title I compensatory education program. This year, Young will use Rusk's $124,000 grant to pay for supplies, staff, field trips, and an extended school year. And Antonio is one of 7,500 Houston students who have received a $30 Title I clothing voucher. With the salary Ramirez is now receiving from her job as a Title I aide, she was able to move out of the shelter.

What's more, many area families turn to the school-based health clinic at Rusk for their medical needs. Although the city pays the salaries of most of the clinic's staff, the federal government subsidizes two employees affiliated with the AmeriCorps national-service program.

The Ramirez's needs are not unique, nor are the district's and its dependence on federal funds. Nationwide, about 6 percent of all public school funding comes from federal dollars. But the average federal contribution to the budgets of large urban systems is much higher, ranging from 5 percent in Broward County, Fla., to 18 percent in New Orleans. "Every time you cut a dollar from education, you're going to hit the cities hardest,'' says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Republican lawmakers have thus far been unimpressed with such arguments. Congressman Bill Archer, who represents part of Houston, argued in a recent constituent newsletter that more money will not correct today's education ills. "If money were the answer, America would have the best schools in the world,'' the congressman wrote. "Ironically, a closer correlation seems to exist between higher levels of spending and lower levels of school performance.''

Archer also argued that federal education spending is inefficient, a common assertion by Republican budget cutters. They claim, for example, that many of the programs funded by the popular Title I are failures. "The problem is that we don't get any results in that area,'' says Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education. "Title I money is largely wasted today.''

Because education programs tend to be forward-funded, most of the proposed spending cuts would not be felt until the 1996-97 school year. That gives districts some time to plan. Having heard rhetoric like Porter's for months now, Houston school officials are acting like emergency workers preparing for a hurricane. To absorb the $7.8 million in Title I aid the district would lose under House GOP proposals would mean cutting the clothing vouchers, eliminating supplemental counseling and social services for about 14,000 students, paring up to 67 schools from the Title I program, and letting go 200 to 240 teachers, support workers, and aides.

"I can see strengthening accountability and taking action if we don't see improvement,'' says Susan Scalfani, chief of staff for Houston superintendent Rod Paige. "But we should not make children pay because adults make mistakes.''

Houston school officials are especially concerned about the future of a number of fledgling programs that have been launched with federal funds. The district, for example, has received $100,000 in planning money under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and has an application pending for an additional $3.8 million over three years. Goals 2000, which offers federal dollars to help states and districts plan and implement reforms based on high academic standards, is a Clinton administration initiative that many Republicans want to eliminate.

Last year, Burbank Middle School used its first-ever, $165,000 Title I grant to launch the Accelerated Academy, a school within a school that enables students who have fallen behind to get two years' credit in one year. Burbank principal Glenda Alvarez says too many students are automatically promoted after failing for a second time and arrive in high school ill-prepared and much older than their classmates. She hopes that academy will help remedy the situation.

Burbank also used a federal bilingual education grant to start a program for recently arrived immigrant students. Much of the three-year $175,000 grant went toward curriculum development and teacher training. The program has already paid off. Burbank's limited-English-proficient students, who represent less than 10 percent of the school population, made up 40 percent of the honor roll last year. Since the school invested the initial grant money in materials and training, the program will be able to survive federal cuts, Alvarez says.

But that may not be the case for district plans to develop a systemwide bilingual program based on the Burbank model. The initiative, which began this year, depends on a five-year $3.3 million federal grant. "We could lose it all in the second year,'' says assistant superintendent of special programs Jose Angel Hernandez.

Federal aid also figures prominently in a district plan to transform the 1,250-student Barbara Jordan High School for Careers into a model program. Houston Community College used a federal grant to buy equipment for Barbara Jordan's new cosmetology laboratory, which both the school and community college use. And a peek into a drafting classroom at Barbara Jordan reveals an array of new tables, lamps, and computers loaded with the latest architectural software--all purchased with $100,000 in federal vocational education funds.

Says Ellis Douglas, the school's principal: "When a company says we need kids who know whatever equipment they run, then we have to get it and teach our children on it.''

Seventeen-year-old Isreal Campbell, who takes a general mechanics course at Barbara Jordan, is one of many students who have benefited from that attitude. "I'm doing something I like,'' he says. "Without a vocational program, I probably would have dropped out by now.''

Ray Reiner, assistant superintendent of career and technology education for the Houston schools, says the district stands to lose $500,000 in federal vocational funds, which would mean closing its only career counseling center, cutting four of its advisers, and relocating other staff to satellite sites.

Harriet Arvey, Houston's assistant superintendent for student services, has already watched some of her federal funding slip away. Aid from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program has fallen from $1.7 million in 1993 to $988,000 this year. Further cuts could reduce that to $403,000 in 1996-97. Nine counseling posts and a substance-abuse program have already been eliminated, and this fall officials canceled a $450,000 karate program designed to deter kids from using drugs.

"It's demoralizing,'' Arvey says. "We take great pride in doing what we're doing and basing it on research and programs that work.''

--Robert C. Johnston

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