School Programs Top States' Lists For Block Grants

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Washington--Governors and state legislators last week proposed that as much as $11 billion in federal education, worker-training, and child-welfare programs be consolidated into block grants.

Observers last week cautioned, however, that such an approach would radically alter the nature of the federal contribution to education and the programs offered by many schools.

Separate proposals released by the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures were developed in response to a challenge by President Bush, who included block grants in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Mr. Bush proposed that about $15 billion in domestic programs be turned over to the states as block grants and asked the state officials to suggest which ones. (See Education Week, Feb. 13, 1991.)

Only one of four education programs proposed by the Administration for inclusion in a block grant was also nominated by the N.G.A. and the n.c.s.l.--the existing Chapter 2 block grant.

The $15.4-billion N.G.A. list includes 11 Education Department programs--among them the $1.85-billion special-education program--that will receive a total of $4.58 billion in the current fiscal year.

It also includes the Head Start preschool program, currently funded at $1.952 billion; two child-care programs created last year and funded at $745 million; $777.3 million in child-health programs; and job-training programs worth $835 million in the current fiscal year.

The education-related items on the NGA list total $11.2 billion in spending this year.

The n.c.s.l. package includes $7.074 billion in such programs, including $3.32 billion in Education Department initiatives. It includes bilingual education, which the N.G.A.'s proposal leaves out, but does not include special education or Head Start.

Each proposal is separated into programmatic areas, three of which cover early-childhood programs, school-based programs, and training programs for adults. The state officials proposed "limited" authority to transfer funds between separate block grants, but apparently seek virtually unlimited discretion over funds within each grant.

Coordination Cited

At a news conference, proponents argued that such an approach would allow better coordination of services and a distribution of funds that better matches each state's needs.

Currently, Gov. Carroll A. Campbell of South Carolina said, "Our ability to concentrate on the total child and provide all the services needed is kind of ham-strung."

"We're asking the federal government to cut out the micromanagement and give us the ability to get more money to the service areas," he said.

But education advocates and most Congressional aides contend that the block-grant approach presents more dangers than potential benefits. And observers unanimously predicted last week that the Congress would not seriously consider the proposal.

"If they can sell block grants on Capitol Hill, I'll push a peanut down Pennsylvania Avenue with my nose," said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Even Republican aides who support the block-grant concept concede that theirs is a minority opinion.

"I know my boss will support this, although he probably wouldn't support [inclusion of] some of the programs they listed," one Republican Senate aide said. "But I can't honestly say I think the odds are good."

Funding Cuts Predicted

Opponents note that appropriations for existing block grants, including Chapter 2, have steadily eroded. That erosion has occurred, they say, because such programs do not have a specific constituency lobbying for them and the Congress cannot connect them with specific results.

"Block grants have been a backdoor way to reduce funding and eliminate programs," said Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. "All our experience over the past decade points to a diminution of program support and the disappearance of programs within block grants."

Mr. Hunter agreed: "The governors must have the worst case of amnesia in history. I don't know who did the sales pitch for the Administration, but, if I had a used-car lot, I'd hire them."

The governors and state legislators proposed that overall funding levels be guaranteed for at least five years, and that individual states receive at least as much under the block grant as they currently do through separate programs. But observers said it would be difficult to hold the Congress to such an agreement.

"Anyone who wants block grants wants their funds cut," said John F. Jennings, counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee. "The only way to guarantee that the appropriations committees won't cut your funds is to make them an entitlement. And even entitlements can be changed."

Opponents also argued that the particular education programs targeted for consolidation are too dissimilar for block grants to really result in coordination of services.

Program Choices Criticized

In addition, they said, it was unwise to include the politically sacrosanct Head Start and special-education programs, as well as the new child-care programs the Congress is unlikely to alter just one year after a long, bruising battle to enact them.

Even the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education officials, does not support block grants, said Gordon M. Ambach, its executive director.

Mr. Ambach said a better way to achieve greater flexibility would be the "performance agreement" approach nearly adopted last year as a demonstration program. Under such a plan, states or school districts would propose a coordinated service plan and receive waivers of certain regulations in exchange for performance goals.

"If you want flexibility, look at the children to be served and the programs serving those children, and ask for waivers of regulations so you can merge programs all designed to help those children," Mr. Ambach said. "There's more accountability, better assurance that the persons for whom the Congress actually intended the money get served."

The state officials said they focused on programs that were state-administered. But most of the education programs proposed for inclusion in the block grants either distribute money to the local level under need- and population-based formulas or involve competitions at the federal level.

Winners and Losers

If such programs were consolidated into a block grant, observers said, the total amount of federal funding received by a particular school district would almost certainly change.

For example, the federal vocational-education effort currently includes two programs--for displaced homemakers and the promotion of equity for women--whose funds are to be awarded competitively by states, but the bulk of the funds are distributed to districts based on population and poverty criteria.

The Education Department awards money under other targeted programs, such as bilingual education, to applicants whose proposals are deemed by federal officials and expert reviewers to be most deserving or promising.

Observers also noted last week that, while the state officials' proposals say "financial eligibility" rules would be acceptable, a program that allowed them to allocate funds according to their own criteria would inevitably result in a different distribution.

It is unclear exactly how much discretion state officials seek over the purposes to which funds could be put, and how much would be delegated to the local level.

The N.G.A. proposal suggests that block-grant legislation include "goals for the block grant and a description of the measures that will be used to judge the effectiveness of the use of block-grant funds."

How Much Discretion?

The plans do not say whether state officials could spend most of their mingled funds on one program and none on another.

Under such a scheme, observers agreed, each state would take a different tack.

"It would be very attuned to pressure from particular groups within the states and to what programs of its own a state has," Mr. Ambach said.

Some advocates predicted that many of the programs would simply disappear.

"The programs are established, by and large, because the states were unable or unwilling to meet the needs of certain populations," Mr. Edwards of the NEA said.

"It's a good possibility with some of these [governors] that a lot of money wouldn't go to education," Mr. Hunter of the AASA said.

"My guess is that collaborative services for young children--day care, preschool, early elementary--would be a winner, because that's where the national priority seems to be when you get a blue-ribbon group together," he said. "I suspect vocational education would not be a big winner, and I wouldn't be surprised if education of the handicapped was a loser."

Vol. 10, Issue 30, Page 1, 24

Published in Print: April 17, 1991, as School Programs Top States' Lists For Block Grants
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