ED Deadline To Approve State K-12 Plans Looms

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The Department of Education faces a July 1 deadline for giving its stamp of approval to states' plans to coordinate their federal K-12 programs and funding.

About 12 states have yet to win the final federal endorsement for their so-called consolidated plans for programs under the 1994 Improving America's Schools Act and other federal laws, according to Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

"We're going to work together with states to make sure we get this done," Mr. Tirozzi said in an interview last week.

Mr. Tirozzi had signed off on the final plans of close to 40 states by late last week. Of the remaining states, only a few may face major obstacles to winning the department's approval so they can receive their portion of federal K-12 aid starting July 1.

The department will temporarily withhold money from states without approved plans by the deadline. Federal officials, however, will continue to seek compromises with states.

If any standoff lasts past the middle of July, Mr. Tirozzi said, the department will consider imposing its ultimate penalty: revoking a state's eligibility for money from the $11 billion pool of elementary and secondary program funding in the 1997-98 school year.

Range of Programs at Stake

The affected programs include the Title I program for disadvantaged students, Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development grants, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools initiative, and migrant education. If a state chooses, consolidated plans also may cover federal vocational education, school reform, and technology programs.

In the 2 1/2 years since the department released guidelines on consolidating state planning for federal K-12 programs, state and federal officials have bounced various proposals back and forth.

In 1995, the federal K-12 office asked states to prepare general outlines of how they would use federal money, giving them until last summer to complete a detailed plan.

Last year, Mr. Tirozzi said, six states won the department's approval to operate the federal programs in their states until fiscal 2000--when the Improving America's Schools Act expires. The 1994 law reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In addition, Alabama, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wyoming received one-year extensions to finalize plans on the condition that they propose major changes and clarifications by March 15 of this year and that the department approve those amendments by July 1. The department requested that the remaining states make minor changes, Mr. Tirozzi said.

South Dakota and about 35 other states so far have amended their documents to satisfy the department. They will be eligible to receive federal money starting July 1, officials here and in South Dakota say.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, state and federal officials are still hashing out an agreement. Members of Mr. Tirozzi's staff went to Atlanta for three days of meetings with Georgia officials last week and appeared to make progress toward a resolution, according to a state official.

"We identified all of the issues that they had and that we had," said John Roddy, Georgia's director of federal programs. "All that remains for us to do is some follow-up and [to] provide additional information to the department."

Creative Leap

Under the 1994 law, which rewrote requirements for Title I and other K-12 programs, states got the opportunity to merge several program plans once filed separately. Federal officials urged them to take the chance to think creatively about how programs generally viewed as separate fiefdoms could interact to promote school reform.

But many states did not provide enough specifics in their plans to satisfy the department. The issues that caused the most headaches were the setting of performance standards for Title I students and defining how states would assess students to determine whether they were making "adequate yearly progress" toward performance goals, Mr. Tirozzi and others said.

Some state officials complained that the department was unclear about what it expected from them, or expected too much of them.

"The process worked fairly well," said Leigh M. Manasevit, a Washington-based lawyer who represents state education departments on federal matters. Some states he represents encountered significant hurdles, but all of their differences with the federal government are now settled, he added.

For example, the Department of Education said states should not use a translation of English tests when they assess the progress of limited-English-proficient children in Title I. The translation would not yield comparable data for English-speakers and students who are not fluent in English, according to the department.

But the department did not offer any concrete guidance on what states should do instead, Mr. Manasevit said.

State Difficulties

One reason South Dakota failed to win long-term approval for its initial submission was its failure to spell out how it would define "adequate yearly progress" of Title I students until it had created final tests to do so, said the state official who coordinated the plan.

The state, without a large headquarters staff or the resources of a large research university, struggled to get the help it needed to fully explain what it wanted to do. Federal officials waited until too late in the process last year for the state to revise its first draft and add the details the federal Education Department wanted, said Ruth Smith, the administrator of the state's office of technical assistance.

"It's been tough for us to get to the level of detail they expected," Ms. Smith said. "We struggled with that."

Georgia's first plan fell short because its state testing system yields pass-fail results rather than dividing student performance into three categories as Title I requires, Mr. Roddy said.

The state department staff, however, does not have the power to change the state's assessment without a vote by the state board of education.

Talks with federal officials clarified how the state can adjust its current tests without the state board's approval, Mr. Roddy said.

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