Chapter 2 Fate Is the Subject of Hot Debate

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Whether to eliminate the popular Chapter 2 block-grant program, as the Clinton Administration proposes, has been one of the more controversial issues debated as Congress works on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Over the past few months, Administration officials have pointed to the findings of a little-known study, which they say bolsters their position.

Critics dispute that interpretation, however, and the obscure report attained celebrity status earlier this month when Republican lawmakers cited it at a news conference held to support Chapter 2.

"It's sort of like the Bible,'' said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Everybody quotes it to mean what they want it to mean. I think we've got an argument between the Presbyterians and the Lutherans about whether to sprinkle or dunk.''

The document in question, "How Chapter 2 Operates at the Federal, State, and Local Levels,'' is a wide-ranging 240-page study, conducted under an Education Department contract by SRI International.

Department officials began quietly using the report as rhetorical ammunition earlier in the year, and made it available at a conference of state Chapter 2 coordinators, but did not send it to Congressional education committees until early March.

That has spurred some Chapter 2 proponents to charge that the department was keeping the study under wraps.

"The Administration missed the spinning on this one,'' Mr. Hunter said. "This is a report that really could've benefited from spirited debate because both sides have a point.''

One Republican House aide said that while department officials were lobbying members of the Education and Labor Committee back in February--when the panel was drafting HR 6, the E.S.E.A. bill that has been passed by the House--they cited the study as evidence.

But by the time they sent the report to Capitol Hill, it was too late to influence debate, the aide said.

"Once we sat down and read the report, we were very surprised,'' the aide said. "We read the report to say, 'Yes, the program isn't perfect and could use some fine-tuning, but, over all, it could help schools improve children's learning.'''

The study became a public issue earlier this month, as the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and its Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities neared a mark-up of their E.S.E.A. bill, which was originally planned for last week.

In an effort to influence the Senate, four House Republicans held a news conference about Chapter 2.

In addition to noting the support the program has on the state and local levels, where state and district officials are grateful for a grant that they can use for almost any educational purpose, the Republicans challenged the Administration's interpretation of the report.

A Matter of Interpretation

They point to the study's ultimate conclusion--that Chapter 2 "can be a powerful vehicle for educational reform if certain aspects of the program are changed''--as the truest reflection of the intended message of the report's authors.

And the study--based on mail surveys of all state education agencies and 1,500 school districts as well as case studies of six states and 18 districts--supports arguments on both sides of the issue.

"There is ample evidence from both the survey and case-study data that Chapter 2 is used to support educational improvement as intended by the legislation,'' the report says.

Its flexibility has allowed some states and districts to launch innovative programs or focus "funds on at-risk/high-cost students.''

However, the report notes, others spend the money in ways that "have little direct impact or no impact on students, instruction, school staff, or school performance.''

Moreover, it says, many Chapter 2 programs are not evaluated or are difficult to evaluate.

Marshall S. Smith, the undersecretary of education, said in an interview that, while the report points out some beneficial aspects of Chapter 2, SRI researchers have recommended that the program be more narrowly focused on education reform. He said that is precisely the purpose of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the Clinton Administration education-reform bill that was recently enacted into law.

"I don't see the reason for crafting another reform bill since we already have Goals 2000,'' Mr. Smith said. "Nobody can deny that it isn't nice to have a little spare change in your pockets, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that [Chapter 2 is] anything more than that.''

He said the department made the report freely available to lawmakers, but does not routinely publicize the publication of every report.

"Anybody who wants one can come get one,'' Mr. Smith said.

Compromise in the Works

But what SRI has concluded may make no difference when the Senate subcommittee meets this week.

Congressional aides and lobbyists said it appears that the panel will include a block-grant program modeled on Chapter 2 in their version of the bill, but that its annual funding would be limited to $200 million. Chapter 2 received $370 million in fiscal 1994.

The Administration proposed expanding the Eisenhower mathematics and science program into a multi-discipline professional-development program and setting its spending ceiling about at the current authorization levels for Eisenhower and Chapter 2 combined. The House essentially decided to create the program and also retain Chapter 2.

Should the final version of the E.S.E.A. bill keep Chapter 2 or a similar block-grant program, the Administration may renew its fight in the appropriations arena, where funding for the program has steadily decreased in recent years as lawmakers funnel increasingly scarce dollars into programs with more specific goals and constituencies.

A Democratic House appropriations aide noted that appropriators have not historically put the Chapter 2 program "at the top of the list,'' and said that the study would probably not sway them.

Copies of the study are available from the Planning and Evaluation Service, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Room 3127, Washington, D.C. 20202; (202) 401-3032.

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