Superintendents Support Block Grants With Strings

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The American Association of School Administrators has taken the unusual step of proposing legislation to consolidate some federal education programs into block grants and target their funding toward impoverished students.

Meanwhile, Senate GOP leaders have revived some of their controversial block grant and voucher plans from last year to introduce in new legislation after Congress comes back to work this week.

The Arlington, Va.-based AASA says its plan--released last week after the Republicans issued their proposals--would help boost the achievement of students living in poverty, particularly those in isolated rural communities and areas with high concentrations of poverty. The 15,000-member superintendents' group wants Congress to "rethink the way it addresses the needs of those children that generally occupy the lowest rung of the ladder."

The plan would give eligible schools up to $1,000 per student in federal aid, provided that 80 percent of a school's faculty, as well as the principal and district superintendent, agreed to be held accountable for the affected students' performance.

It would only give federal funds to schools and faculty members that are interested in reform and using sound, research-based models, Bruce Hunter, the AASA's government-relations director, said.

The plan, which the AASA estimates could cost as much as $5 billion a year, would be paid for in part by consolidating about $2.4 billion in education reform programs, including Goals 2000, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities initiative, and such school technology programs as the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, into block grants and distributing the money directly to the qualifying schools.

Several of those programs were also included in the Senate GOP's proposal. But the main difference is that the AASA block grant would make funding for such programs mandatory--meaning that they would be financed at a set level each year instead of being subject to the appropriations process.

Response to Critics

The AASA proposal was created, in part, in response to criticism that education groups were not willing to negotiate on any of the GOP block grant proposals put forth last year, Mr. Hunter said. Even if the proposal does not advance, the group hopes it will spur more dialogue on shifting some education programs to mandated spending, an idea President Clinton initially floated last year when he proposed new literacy and school construction initiatives.

But Mr. Hunter emphasized that the AASA would not support any block grant that veered from the group's plan. "We are not in the mood to negotiate," he said.

The AASA proposal received a friendly greeting from the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "We'll certainly look at any proposal that they send us," said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the panel's GOP members.

While block grant funding has historically led to less funding for federal programs, making spending on them mandatory could "answer a major criticism," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group, and a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee.

"It's a very fruitful addition to the debate," Mr. Jennings said, adding that it potentially could have considerable impact.

Republican Plans

Also last week, Senate GOP leaders announced that they will resurrect several controversial plans that died last year, while also pushing new proposals for safe schools, in an omnibus education bill. The proposal, called the Better Opportunities for Our Kids and Schools Act, or BOOKS, includes:

  • A scaled-down block grant plan that would send about $10 billion annually in federal education funding--not including Title I money--directly to districts, and stipulate that 95 percent of it must be spent in the classroom.
  • A new, five-year proposal that would authorize $75 million in fiscal 1999 toward 20 to 30 pilot programs that give vouchers to low-income students in schools with high crime rates.
  • A plan that would enable districts to provide vouchers for any student who has been the victim of a violent crime at school and that would establish a grant program for innovative school safety programs.
  • The "educational savings account" plan by Sen. Paul D. Coverdell, R-Ga., the chief sponsor of the overall measure, that would allow parents to contribute up to $2,500 tax-free each year for any educational expenses, including private school tuition. ("Education Tax-Savings Bill Stalls in Senate," Nov. 12, 1997.)
  • Literacy and charter school initiatives already approved by the House.
  • Authorization for an additional $9.4 billion over six years for special education.

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