Drug Cuts Passed by House 'Shock' Prevention Advocates

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WASHINGTON--When the House voted last month--with the apparent acquiescence of the Clinton Administration--to slash $231 million from drug-treatment and -education programs, supporters of the programs were incensed.

"We were shocked and amazed,'' one House committee aide working on reauthorization of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act said. "It's an awfully large cut.''

The House made the cuts--slicing $131 million from the drug-free-schools program and $100 million from drug-treatment projects--when it passed its spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Given the fact that illegal drug use costs billions of dollars a year in medical costs, lost productivity, and incarceration, "we are very disappointed that there would even be discussion about cuts in prevention,'' said Glenn Levant, the executive director of Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the drug-education program most widely used in schools today.

But amid the storm of protest, the education community was relatively calm. Many education lobbyists view the drug-free-schools program, which funneled $598 million into state and local drug- and alcohol-abuse-prevention programs this year, as insignificant compared to larger programs with more established constituencies.

"If I sit in a meeting of public education people, they are going to talk about vocational education, Chapter 1, and Pell grants,'' said Jerry Morris, the deputy director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers. "Nobody is going to talk about drug-free schools. People have bigger things on their minds.''

"If the federal government is going to make cuts somewhere in education, they picked the program that is going to inspire the least grumbles,'' echoed Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"If they made the same cuts in Chapter 1, we'd be raising hell,'' he said. "We are not even raising heck.''

A 'Powerful Weapon'?

Launched in 1987 with a $2 million budget under President Reagan, the drug-free-schools program was a centerpiece of the "war on drugs.'' Former President Bush once called it a "powerful weapon in helping to drug-proof our children.''

Today, however, some education lobbyists assert that it is an overly politicized program with a dubious practical effect in preventing adolescent drug use. Critics suggest that the program grew so large because it was one of the few educational expenditures on which Republican administrations and Congressional Democrats could agree.

"The program was a political football,'' Mr. Hunter said. "Politicians tinkered with it every year so they could say they had a drug bill and get political credit for fighting drugs.''

But, he added, "it's hard to have faith in a program that has had little guidance from educators.''

The program's supporters contend, however, that drug education is both relevant and effective.

Mr. Levant of DARE points to a Gallup survey published last month in which 93 percent of high school students who graduated from the DARE program said they had never used illegal drugs.

A 1992 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey showed a steady decline in drug use among teenagers during the past decade.

In a report accompanying their spending bill, House Appropriations Committee members cited the "dramatic decline'' in adolescent drug use since the program began as a justification for shifting resources to other high-priority initiatives.

But "if prevention is effective,'' Mr. Levant argued, "you don't stop it. That's ludicrous.''

"We are very seriously displeased,'' said Dick Kruse, the director of governmental relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the president of the Committee for Education Funding. "Cutting down on our capacity to inform kids about the scourge of drugs is a big, big mistake.''

But Mr. Kruse and most of his colleagues agree that the program could be significantly improved.

Noting that debates over who controls the federal funds guaranteed to state education agencies have arisen in some states, they suggested, for example, that better evaluation procedures be developed to guard against inappropriate use of funds.

Some observers also assert that school-based instruction should be emphasized over large-scale advertising campaigns.

"The drug-free-schools program needs to minimize the glitz and go for the guts of education programs in high-need areas,'' said Ed Kealy, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association.

Cut Acceptable to Clinton

The cuts in the House appropriations bill apparently took the programs' supporters by surprise.

President Clinton's proposed budget would have maintained the drug-free-schools program's 1993 spending level, but the 20 percent reduction was apparently acceptable to an Administration eager to find places to trim expenditures, Congressional sources said.

"The Office of Management and Budget has indicated that the Administration supports this retrenchment,'' said the report accompanying HR 2418, which also said that maintaining the program should be less expensive than establishing it.

On the local level, the drug-education cuts could damage existing programs that rely heavily on the federal funds, said Bill Modzeleski, the director of drug planning and outreach in the Education Department.

"There has to be some belt tightening,'' he said, predicting that programs would have to merge, reduce their staffs, or scale back curricula.

He thinks the cuts "may have a silver lining,'' however, in that they might prompt school districts to rethink their drug-education programs and make them more efficient.

The Clinton Administration's proposal for revamping the drug-free-schools program, which is to be reauthorized next year as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would broaden the program by allowing schools to use their funding to improve school safety as well as for drug prevention. (See related story, page 1.)

Meanwhile, Lee P. Brown, who was sworn in as the national drug-policy director last month, says he will lobby to restore the budget cuts.

"I want everybody to understand that we still have a serious drug problem in America,'' he said at a news conference.

Senators will decide whether to match the House cuts when they vote on their spending bill next month.

Vol. 12, Issue 40

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