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Migrant Ed. Rules Require Tighter Verification

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 12, 2008 4 min read

Final regulations for the federal migrant education program stiffen the requirements state administrators must follow to verify that all migrants are eligible to participate.

Some advocates for migrants say the rules, which for the first time require states to reinterview a sample of migrant families each year, may discourage participation. The regulations from the Department of Education, which were published July 29 in the Federal Register, take effect Aug. 28.

The program, established in 1966, serves 3- to 21-year-old children of farmworkers and other migratory agricultural workers during the regular school year and summers.

To qualify, children or their families must have moved across school district lines and obtained, or had the intention of getting, work in agriculture or fishing. Forty-eight states take part in the program, which is now part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The number of children participating has dropped from a peak of 889,000 in the 2002-03 school year to 536,000 during the 2006-07 school year, the most recent year for which data are available. Congress appropriated $380 million for the program for fiscal 2008.

It hasn’t been easy for states to implement eligibility rules. In the past few years, federal audits in several states found recruiters counting families as eligible who were later determined not to be eligible. Maine reported an error rate of 75 percent. (See “Migrant Education Program Draws Scrutiny,” May 16, 2007.)

The new mandate for reinterviewing families each year is needed “to ensure ongoing quality control in all future eligibility determinations,” the Education Department said in its announcement of the final rules.

Some migrant groups opposed issuance of regulations for the program before the reauthorization of the NCLB law, which has stalled in Congress. But the department said the new rules “are needed now in order to resolve serious problems and implement essential improvements in program operations.”

Distrust From Families?

Migrant advocates say that while quality control is necessary, the new regulations go too far.

“The requirement that individual parents be reinterviewed on an annual basis is going to continue to damage the relationship between the state program and the community and families,” said Roger Rosenthal, the executive director of the Washington-based Migrant Legal Action Program. “Some families are reluctant to give information for initial eligibility.”

If families come to distrust program administrators, Mr. Rosenthal said, they won’t participate.

Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, said that to cut down on the administrative costs of reinterviewing families, it would be enough to do so only every two or three years.

Gregg Wiggins, a spokesman for the Education Department, said in an e-mail message that program administrators, to date, have conducted reinterviews only on a voluntary basis with migrant families whose children were recruited to the program, and that those interviews were based on policy recommendations in nonbinding guidance put out by the department.

The regulations also try to clarify various terms in the law, among them what it means that children are eligible to participate if they or their family members made a move “in order to obtain” work in fishing or agriculture.

Tran Vo, left, a participant in a migrant education program in Chester County, Pa., talks with Imani Powell, right, of West Chester University last year about college admissions.

Mr. Rosenthal said the Education Department has said the phrase means recruiters must determine that migrants had the intention of getting work in agriculture or fishing when they made the move—that it’s not enough that the migrants happened to get such work.

Mr. Rosenthal said that he and other migrant advocates have disagreed with that interpretation, believing the phrase was meant to include families who had moved with the intent of getting work in agriculture or fishing but who had found other kinds of work.

The language “was never meant to look into the brain of a farmworker family,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

With the clarification, federal officials “appear to be backing off from their interpretation of the law with which we disagreed,” he said.

Mr. Martin of UC-Davis said the migrant program should base funding on the number of children that states serve, rather than on how many are eligible for services.

But Mr. Wiggins of the Education Department said that federal officials don’t think it is desirable to base allocations only on children served, because “doing so would have the perverse incentive of encouraging state migrant education programs to provide only a minimal service.”

An example of a minimal service, he said, would be dropping a book or pamphlet off at a migrant family’s home rather than providing more substantive educational help to children. Mr. Wiggins noted that a component of the funding formula already takes into account the number of children served as well as those eligible.

A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Migrant Ed. Rules Require Tighter Verification

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