Budget Woes Seen Hurting E.D. Centers
The Department of Education's 15 new technical-assistance centers are supposed to be one-stop regional shopping centers for guidance on school reform.
But despite enthusiasm in Washington and in the field, budget delays and funding cuts threaten to limit the centers to mini-mart status.
The new centers replace 48 categorical centers that had provided specific assistance to schools running federal programs such as Title I, drug education, and migrant- and bilingual-education programs. The old system received $44 million in the fiscal 1994 federal budget, which paid for most center activities in the 1994-95 school year. (See box, page 23.)
The Clinton administration had hoped to spend more than $80 million between the summer of 1995 and the fall of 1996 to close out the old centers and get the new ones running. But only about $50 million was ultimately available, and the new centers will receive less than half as much as they had planned for.
"The new centers are our effort to provide technical assistance that's collaborative and positive," said Jim Kohlmoos, an acting deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "But we're compromised in our efforts."
While some educators worry that the closing of the old centers signals the loss of subject-specific training they need, dissatisfaction with the change was not what drove appropriators to set a low funding level.
A House Republican aide said that merging the old centers "was consistent with the way we wanted to go."
But by appropriating only $21.6 million this year, less than half as much as the administration requested, he said, "we tried to send the message that things are still far too fragmented."
Created by the Improving America's Schools Act, which reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs in 1994, the centers are intended to be clearinghouses that focus on promoting high academic standards, especially for low-income children. (See list, page 23.)
Using in-house experts or subcontractors, most of whom ran categorical centers under the old system, the centers will focus less on specific issues and more on broad reform efforts, such as statewide academic standards or the new assessment systems required by changes to the Title I remedial-education program.
"There's a lot more cooperation and collaboration. I think you'll see a lot more common sense," said Pamela Buckley, the director of the Region IV Comprehensive Technical Assistance Center in Charleston, W.Va.
The new system reflects the department's broader efforts to change the way it assists states and districts. The department has begun cross-training specialists, is expanding the use of technology to communicate with the public, and is reviewing its auditing policy to focus on technical assistance. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1996.)
In addition, state monitors are being sent out in teams to review states' operation of federal programs, rather than as "a parade of individuals," Mr. Kohlmoos said.
"We're defining a partnership rather than a command-and-control relationship," he added.
But the technical-assistance centers have been hamstrung by fiscal uncertainty.
The troubles began last summer, when Congress passed a rescissions bill that cut $574 million that had already been appropriated for Education Department programs. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)
That bill sliced $14.9 million from the $44.5 million that had been appropriated for technical-assistance centers in fiscal 1995, which began Oct. 1, 1994.
The new centers, which began operations on April 1 of this year, were to have received at least $15 million of that money for start-up costs, with the old centers using the rest to continue through March 31. But start-up funding was cut to about $1.5 million.
The situation did not improve in fiscal 1996, which began Oct. 1 of last year. During the long budgetary impasse between the White House and Congress, the Education Department was funded at low levels under a series of 13 stopgap spending bills. Instead of getting an infusion of cash last fall, "money came in dribs and drabs," said one center official.
"It's hard to hire staff when you don't have a budget in place," said Carlos Sundermann, the director of the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Portland, Ore. "But we took the bull by the horns and moved forward."
Most of the centers weathered the funding impasse by drawing on the resources of their parent institutions, such as universities, and other federal grants they were receiving. Many of them had also been involved with contracts under the old system and thus had programs in place.
But when the budget battle was over, the centers' fiscal 1996 funding stood at only $21.6 million. The administration had requested $55 million in 1996, and officials said they intended to give the new centers about $40 million of it--in addition to the $15 million in 1995 startup funds--to spend in the current school year. President Clinton has requested $45 million for the centers next year.
The 15 center directors had submitted proposals that assumed funding of up to $4 million a year per center, and while they did not necessarily expect to get the whole $55 million the administration requested, they are deeply concerned.
"It doesn't go a long way, and we're being asked to do a whole lot," said Paul E. Martinez, the director of the Southwest Comprehensive Center in Albuquerque, N.M., who had projected a $3.9 million budget but now anticipates getting about $1.6 million for the current school year. "Everyone is pulling unlike they've ever had to pull for a contract."
"We have no idea what will happen next year. There's tremendous uncertainty," said Vivian Guilfoy, the director of the New England Comprehensive Center in Newton, Mass.
The centers will also have to make do without the National Diffusion Network, a web of state contacts for disseminating exemplary school programs that was killed in the 1996 federal budget. The centers, which were to work with the NDN, have not officially been given its role, but some center officials assume the job will fall to them.
"Some of the resources may be around, but it will be haphazard," said Max McConkey, the director of the National Dissemination Association, a Tucson, Ariz.-based group of professionals involved with the NDN. "There's no national resource to do it."
Meeting a Challenge
Despite their financial concerns, center directors and federal officials are moving ahead with plans for the new system.
"Are we going to cry about it? No," said Arthur Cole, the Education Department's acting director of school-improvement programs. "I think our directors are considering this a challenge."
While federal officials say each center will set its own priorities based on local needs, it is unlikely that there will be staff members available to respond immediately to narrow concerns.
"It stands to reason that the level and intensity of programs will be different, but in some ways it will be more effectively coordinated and cost-efficient," said Henry Mothner, the director of the Southern California Comprehensive Regional Assistance Center in Downey.
"We will apply criteria and decide if we can go on-site or respond with regional training," said Mr. Sundermann of the Northwest lab, who is adding 10 trainers to his current staff of five. He hopes to experiment with video conferences this summer and with grouping requests by themes.
Mr. Sundermann said his top priority will be high-poverty schools engaged in schoolwide reform.
Mr. Martinez said his office has also become more frugal. Rather than respond individually to inquiries from New Mexico educators on American Indian education, for example, the center organized a statewide, two-day workshop earlier this month.
The centers expect to spend a lot of time helping educators make connections between issues and streamlining their efforts.
"Our goal is to work comprehensively, not just on one program. So if drugs are a main issue, we'll also look at Title I, bilingual students, and the whole school," said Charlene Rivera, the director of the Region III Comprehensive Technical Assistance Center in Arlington, Va.
LaMar P. Smith, the director of the New York Technical Assistance Center in New York City, said his staff is working with local officials on improvement plans for some 300 low-performing schools.
"For the first time, I see a chance to address low-income schools like never before," he said. "People are not working at cross-purposes as much."
Minerva Coyne, the director of the Region IV Comprehensive Regional Assistance Center in Madison, Wis., said her center will help schools forge their own solutions with resources they might already have. "You have to teach them how to fish rather than give them the fish," she said.
But local officials are not sure what to expect from the new centers, and some are unhappy about losing their old services.
Lamenting a Loss
"I can't say enough about the wonderful services we received," said Caroline Donaway, the coordinator of English-as-a-second-language programs for the 4,000-student Sioux City, Iowa, school district. "We've been told [future services] will be more global."
In Osseo, Minn., the 22,000-student school district was in the midst of anti-drug training programs in March when the center leading the effort lost its federal grant. The Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul now charges for its services.
The Osseo district, which is looking at a $9.6 million budget shortfall next year, cannot afford it. And they are not alone.
"Some schools are purchasing services, but it's very difficult for many," said Kathy Marshall, the assistant to the director of the Minnesota center. "We're literally going from month to month."
She said that while fees are negotiable, a one-day training seminar can cost $1,000, plus expenses.
Other state and local officials are better acquainted with the new centers, and like what they see.
"We were very happy with the old system. When we heard it was going to change, we panicked," said Mary VanderWall, the supervisor of drug- and AIDS-prevention initiatives for the Colorado education department.
But she formed a good impression of her new regional center after its staff accepted an invitation to meet with Colorado officials last summer.
"We've been very encouraged," she said. "They had a lot of knowledge. And what they didn't know, they were willing to learn."
Regional Assistance Centers
The following list contains the Department of Education's comprehensive regional assistance centers, the areas they serve, and phone numbers and electronic addresses for obtaining more information.
Region 1: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
New England Comprehensive Center at Education Development Center,
Newton, Mass. (800) 332-0226
E-mail: [email protected]
World Wide Web: site under construction
Region 2: New York state
Region 3: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania
Region 4: Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia
Region 5: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi
Region 6: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin
Region 7: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma
Region 8: Texas
Region 9: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah
Region 10: Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington state, Wyoming
Region 11: Northern California
Region 12: Southern California
Region 13: Alaska
Region 14: Florida, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands
Region 15: American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaii, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau