Title I Grant Allocations Await Decision on Population Estimates

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For the second year in a row, the nation's public schools are writing next year's budgets without knowing exactly how much money they can count on from the federal government.

While schools know approximately how much money to expect in the fall, some could lose big portions of their grants if two Cabinet secretaries decide to dole out Title I grants based on population and poverty estimates from 1994 rather than counts from the 1990 Census.

The decision will be made, according to the Department of Education, once the secretaries of education and commerce receive a report from a panel of statisticians convened by the National Academy of Sciences. The panel is studying whether the estimates of 1994 population figures are accurate enough to fairly distribute the program's $7.2 billion in aid for educating disadvantaged students.

An executive summary from the panel, released late last month, recommends using a combination of the recent estimates and the old data. The report will be available to the federal officials soon, an NAS spokeswoman said last week.

"We are keenly aware of the need for timely information," Education Department officials said in a prepared statement.

As of last week, the Bureau of the Census had not released the 1994 estimates to the public, preventing an in-depth analysis of how those figures might shift Title I money.

But, if the federal government chooses to rely on the updated numbers, schools in states that experienced fast growth in child poverty in the early 1990s will benefit. While high-growth states in the West are expected to be the big winners, other regions that suffered from the recession in that period may also see Title I and other federal funds increase.

Providing Some Protection

This is the second straight budget cycle in which schools will have to put a question mark in the line item for Title I, the largest federal K-12 program. And money from smaller programs--such as the Title VI innovative-strategies block grant, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program, and the Goals 2000: Education America Act--is distributed, in part, using the Title I formula.

Last year, the prolonged congressional battle over fiscal 1996 funding left schools with only a rough calculation of what to expect. Then, the department told them to plan for the worst--a 17 percent cut proposed in a House bill.

Congress and President Clinton settled the budget stalemate in late April, but many districts already had issued preliminary pink slips to teachers based on the worst-case scenario that they would lose money. ("State and Local Budget Writers Brace forWorst," Feb. 14, 1996.)

This year, with fiscal 1997 funding in place, the potential for fluctuation isn't as great. Losers will be protected by a "hold harmless" clause in the basic-grant formula, guaranteeing them between 85 percent and 95 percent of their current funding next year, with the highest-poverty schools feeling the least pain.

Since basic-grant funding will increase 2.5 percent in the 1997-98 school year, no districts are expected to be forced below the hold-harmless level for their basic grants.

But districts receiving money under the concentration-grant formula could be in for big surprises, according to Jeff Simering, the legislative director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents large urban districts.

State Winners, Losers

The question of whether to use 1990 data or 1994 estimates this year was the topic of extended debate during the 1994 reauthorization of the Title I program and other Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs.

High-growth states complained then that they are shortchanged when the program relies on population counts done every 10 years.

As late as 1992, the Education Department used 1980 Census data to distribute federal money. States such as Arizona and California, which saw their enrollments of disadvantaged children rise faster than other states' in the 1980s, lost out. Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and other states where the number of children in poverty declined received disproportionately high grants in the early 1990s.

During the 1994 congressional debate, Census Bureau officials said they did not know if they could produce population and poverty estimates that would be accurate enough to ensure fair distribution of the money.

In a compromise, Congress paid the NAS to evaluate the bureau's methodology and report to the secretary of commerce, who oversees the Census Bureau, and to the secretary of education. The final decision is in the hands of the Cabinet secretaries.

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