Officials Weigh Which Poverty Data To Use in Allotting Aid

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Two Cabinet secretaries were expected to announce a decision this week that could give a boost to the bottom line for schools in California, the Southwest, and the East.

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The secretaries of education and commerce were close to choosing between two sets of child-poverty data--one from 1990 and another from 1994--and the alternative of averaging them.

The choice is an important one for schools because the data will serve as the basis for the Department of Education's distribution of $7.1 billion under the federal Title I program, as well as money from several smaller programs, starting July 1 and covering the 1997-98 school year. Depending on the secretaries' decision, money could shift dramatically among school districts.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley, who oversees population counts by the Bureau of the Census, have been reviewing the options for almost a month.

Last month, a panel of statisticians convened by the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the secretaries average the poverty data from the two sources, saying neither one was completely reliable. The 1994 estimates were calculated by an unproven model, and the 1990 population count is outdated, the panel said. ("Title I Grant Allocations Await Decision On Population Estimates," April 2, 1997.)

"We're going to take seriously the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences," Gerald N. Tirozzi, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in an interview last week.

Funding Breakdown

If Mr. Riley and Mr. Daley choose to rely on the 1994 numbers, states such as California, Arizona, and Florida would benefit because their population and poverty counts soared after the 1990 Census. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other states along the Eastern seaboard where a recession, and a resulting rise in poverty figures, lingered early in the decade, also would see their federal education funding rise.

Connecticut, for example, would see a 29 percent increase in its current Title I grant if Mr. Riley and Mr. Daley follow the NAS advice, according to calculations based on data provided by the Education Department and the Congressional Research Service.

By contrast, 17 states would see their Title I funding drop next year, with Iowa seeing the biggest dip, 7.5 percent. Other losers would include rural Southern states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and Western states, including Idaho, Montana, and Utah. ("Winners and Losers," in This Week's News.)

Many states stuck in the middle were shielded from losses because funding for the Title I program will rise almost 7 percent for the 1997-98 school year. Grants in those states whose poverty growth did not keep up with the national average of 28 percent still will rise slightly. Illinois, Oklahoma, and Indiana fall into that category.

Build-Up to the Choice

The Cabinet secretaries' decision is the product of the 1994 reauthorization of Title I--the main federal school program for disadvantaged children--and other programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The law requires Mr. Riley and Mr. Daley to accept the NAS recommendation unless they can show through their own statistical analysis that the panel's conclusions are flawed.

During the debate, Western and Sun Belt states fought the hardest for the use of updated data, saying it would be unfair to them to wait 10 years to update the figures on which federal grants are based.

At the time, they complained that New England states received artificially high grants in the early 1990s because their populations had declined during the 1980s.

Ironically, those Northeastern states now stand to benefit, along with California, Florida, and Nevada, if the Cabinet secretaries choose to use the updated numbers, either in whole or in part.

Between 1990 and 1994, the number of poor children rose by more than 70 percent in New Hampshire and Connecticut, according to Census Bureau estimates. Child poverty rose 62.5 percent in Rhode Island and 53.5 percent in Massachusetts.

On the other side of the country, the number of poor children between the ages of 5 and 17 rose 59 percent in Nevada and 55 percent in California.

Those states would not see comparable increases in Title I money in 1997-98 because of quirks in the formula used to distribute the $7.1 billion in grants to states.

The biggest wrinkle is the guarantee that counties will receive between 85 percent and 95 percent of the grants they received this year, depending on their poverty rates. The clause, which is common in federal-grant programs, protects existing programs from suddenly losing major portions of their funds.

As a result, states where child poverty fell below the national average of 28 percent still would not take proportional hits in their grants next year under the updated data, according to estimates from the Congressional Research Service.

The Title I "concentration grant" formula, however, does not have any hold-harmless guarantees. Any county where enrollment of impoverished children dropped below 6,500, or 15 percent, based on new data could lose all of its previous year's concentration grant. Such grants provide extra money for counties with high proportions of children in poverty.

Title I is the biggest slice of federal K-12 aid. But its formula also is used to calculate portions of state grants under the $476 million Goals 2000: Education America Act and the $310 million Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program.

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