Migrant Education Program Draws Scrutiny

Advocates warn of costs from proposed regulation defining student eligibility.

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Proposed new rules intended to keep closer tabs on eligibility for the federal migrant education program could be costly and burdensome for states—and lead to decreased participation of migrant families, according to officials who implement the program in some states.

The migrant program was created in 1966 as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to address the needs of children of mobile farm workers. With a budget of $386.5 million this school year, it serves 635,000 children, ages 3 to 21, providing educational programs during the regular school year and summers.

In its announcement of proposed rule changes in the May 4 Federal Register, the Department of Education said audits and investigations of a number of states by the department’s inspector general had found errors in counts of children who are eligible for the program.

In some instances, the errors “may be actionable as civil or criminal fraud,” department officials stated, without citing specific examples. “In other cases, errors may reflect incorrect interpretations of [migrant education program] eligibility requirements.”

The proposed rule changes would require, for the first time, that states reinterview members of migrant families annually to confirm that counts of eligible children are accurate. The changes also would give the Education Department the authority to adjust funding up or down for fiscal 2006 and subsequent years, according to error rates that have been reported by states and accepted by the department.

In addition, the proposed regulations clarify definitions for who is eligible.

Shawn Cockrum, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education, who directs the federal migrant program in Missouri, said that requiring states to reinterview children each year would be burdensome and unnecessary. Two years ago, when the Education Department asked states to verify their counts of migrant children voluntarily, the job was time-consuming and cost Missouri $70,000, he said.

“We’d rather give money to services for children than pay to validate our count on a regular basis,” he said.

Mr. Cockrum also said some of the added requirements for determining eligibility of children could “cripple” the program because they would require recruiters to grill family members about why they made a move and whether they receive their principal income from agricultural or fishing activities.

“A lot of the people we want to serve come from severe poverty. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves,” Mr. Cockrum said. “They’d rather not answer a lot of questions. … We become a salesman for a program that might benefit their children.”

Existing Guidelines

But Alex Goniprow, a supervisory specialist for the federal Education Department’s office of migrant education, said most of the proposed changes in the regulations already are included in guidance provided to states.

Defining ‘Migrant’

Education Department officials say they are attempting to clarify definitions that may have been confusing to recruiters of children who are eligible for the federal migrant education program.

  • The proposed regulation would “clearly require that one of the purposes of [a] move must be to seek or obtain temporary or seasonal employment in agricultural or fishing work.”
  • The revised definition of the term “migratory child” is intended to make clear that it includes any child who “is a migratory agricultural worker or migratory fisher in his or her own right, or by accompanying or joining a parent, guardian, or spouse who is a migratory agricultural worker or migratory fisher.”
  • For example, recruiters now are required to determine if a migrant intended to seek work in agriculture or fishing when making a move. Also, Mr. Goniprow said, states were told in guidance documents to figure out if a migrant’s principal livelihood is based on agricultural or fishing work.

    “What we hoped to do is provide the states with a clearer set of definitions so they can make their eligibility determinations properly,” he said.

    He also said that the proposed annual reinterviewing is needed for improved quality control.

    Mr. Goniprow said he can’t predict whether the proposed regulations would translate into more or fewer children being served.

    A public-comment period on the proposed regulation is open until July 18.

    Audited States

    Under current regulations, a “migratory child” is one with a parent who works in the fishing or agricultural industry and who, within the most recent three years, has moved across school district lines seeking temporary or seasonal employment in either fishing or agriculture.

    Mr. Goniprow said the proposed revisions were spurred by the inspector general’s findings of errors in eligibility counts and are intended to provide clarification in the existing rules.

    Although he wouldn’t comment on specific audits or investigations because they hadn’t yet been resolved as of last week, audit reports by the Education Department’s inspector general have determined that Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico all had errors in their eligibility counts. Mr. Goniprow confirmed, as well, that an investigation by the inspector general of counts in Maine had turned up errors.

    Mr. Cockrum said he concluded by reading audit reports of those states that some so-called errors in eligibility counts occurred because “the paperwork wasn’t exactly what [the inspector general] wanted,” and that surveys done by states of a certain industry were out of date.

    California is one of several states found in an audit to have significantly overidentified children who were eligible for the migrant program. In its reinterview process, the state found an eligibility-error rate of 5 percent; in a sample of 102 migrant children from two school districts, the inspector general found 38 children—or 37 percent—to be ineligible.

    Ernesto Ruiz, the director of migrant education for the California Department of Education, said state education officials agreed with only two of six findings by the inspector general and haven’t heard yet if the state’s funding for migrant children will be reduced because of the findings.

    He said that the U.S. Education Department’s expectations that states determine people’s intent for moving always has been a problem. One organization of education officials who serve migrants—the Interstate Migrant Education Council—has proposed doing away with it and counting as migrants only people who have ended up in agricultural or fishing work.

    Mr. Ruiz said that he’s also concerned about the requirement for verifying counts of children every year. “We know it’s very time-intensive, labor-intensive, and costly,” he said.

    Education officials from three other states accused of overidentifying migrant-eligible children—Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Maine—declined to comment on whether the proposed regulations are an improvement.

    Number Eligible Declines

    Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, said that under the federal migrant education program, states receive aid based on the number of students eligible for the program, not the number served. He believes the law should tie funding to those who are served.

    The number of children counted as eligible for the federal program has declined from a peak of 889,000 in the 2002-03 school year to 635,000 in the 2005-06 school year, according to Mr. Goniprow. He said the decline is a result of states’ “implementing more rigorous quality controls” and of changes in the nature of work in the United States.

    The proposal is available at www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/index.html.

    Vol. 26, Issue 37, Pages 22-23

    Published in Print: May 16, 2007, as Migrant Education Program Draws Scrutiny
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