Cities Riled by Bush Plan to Weigh School Progress

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Under a proposal by President Bush, a portion of federal community-development money would be distributed to cities and towns based in part on how well their local schools had performed under the No Child Left Behind Act’s standards.

Most of the $3.71 billion that would make up the new “Strengthening America’s Communities” initiative, which is part of the president’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget, would be distributed according to a formula, the Department of Commerce says. Communities would be able to receive the money based on such criteria as poverty rate and unemployment level.

But a portion of the money—5 percent to 10 percent, in early discussions—would be set aside for a proposed Economic Development Challenge Fund. To compete for that money, localities would have to show that they were “development ready” communities with such advantages as business-friendly regulations, reductions in violent crime, and adequate yearly progress in local schools under the No Child Left Behind law.

Local government groups have objected to the change, saying they have no direct control over school governance. But David M. Bearden, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for economic development, said the goal is to encourage localities to form partnerships with schools to improve student achievement.

Businesses are more willing to locate in areas where the workforces are well trained, he said, and the quality of the schools is one way to show that.

“We want to reward those communities that are being forward-thinking and taking those types of actions,” Mr. Bearden said.

Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez has convened an advisory panel that will recommend how school achievement, among other criteria, would be evaluated for the challenge-fund program.

The Strengthening America’s Communities initiative would consolidate 18 direct-grant programs housed at five different government agencies under one umbrella. One of the best-known is the Community Development Block Grant program, which is currently administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The 31-year-old grant program provides money for affordable housing and job creation.

Consolidation of the programs would make it easier for local government agencies to get access to the money, instead of wading through several different sets of rules and regulations, Mr. Bearden said.

Unfair Measures?

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development David A. Sampson outlined the plan at a hearing last month before a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Afterward, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, suggested that the new program could come under the existing structure of the Economic Development Administration.

“For this new program to succeed, it is going to have to be built on the basis of a successful model,” he said in a statement.

Groups representing local governments have spoken out against the initiative. They say that the 18 programs proposed for consolidation are funded at about $5.7 billion total, so the $3.71 billion proposed for the initiative would amount to a cut.

Critics also say that because cities and towns rarely have direct control over schools, it’s not fair for them to be evaluated for funding in part on school performance.

“How can you be measured on some other government body’s decisionmaking?” said Charleta B. Tavares, a City Council member in Columbus, Ohio, and the chairwoman of the No Child Left Behind task force for the National League of Cities.

Ms. Tavares offered an example of the kind of indirect help that cities are offering to school districts under the current Community Development Block Grant program. Columbus has used such grant money to provide affordable housing for families, Ms. Tavares said. The housing program reduces student-mobility rates and gives children a chance to experience the stability they need to do well in school, she said.

The city’s school district, one of the largest in the state, has about 62,000 students.

As for the Bush administration’s contention that the proposed initiative would make it easier to get access to federal money, Ms. Tavares said: “Don’t you think the cities would have been the ones hollering out for some changes?”

David L. Shreve, the education committee director in the Washington office of the National Conference of State Legislatures, also criticized the administration’s proposal.

“It’s very problematic for many cities to reach proficiency targets” under the 3-year-old education law, he said. “Why in the world is anyone making NCLB more muddy than it already is?”

Vol. 24, Issue 33, Page 26

Published in Print: April 27, 2005, as Cities Riled by Bush Plan to Weigh School Progress
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