Federal

Stiffer Rules Issued on Migrant Education Program

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 30, 2008 4 min read
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The federal government has released regulations for the federal migrant education program that stiffen the requirements state administrators must follow to verify that all migrants are qualified to participate in the program.

Some advocates for migrants say the regulations, which for the first time require states to reinterview a sample of migrant families each year, may discourage families from participating. The regulations published this week become effective on Aug. 28.

The federal program was established in 1966 and serves children ages 3 to 21 of farm workers 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 participate in the program, which is now part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The number of children participating in the migrant education program 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 fiscal year 2008 for the program.

It hasn’t been easy for states to implement eligibility rules for the program. In the last 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. (“Migrant Education Program Draws Scrutiny,” May 16, 2007.)

The document containing the regulations published July 29 in the Federal Register says the new mandate for reinterviewing families each year is needed “to ensure ongoing quality control in all future eligibility determinations.”

Though some migrant groups opposed issuance of the regulations prior to reauthorization of NCLB, the Federal Register document says they “are needed now in order to resolve serious problems and implement essential improvements in program operations.”

Objections Raised

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.”

With the new requirement, he added, “Within a year, some parents are going to get questions like, ‘Tell me again what you told me? Are you sure that’s what you told me?’”

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

Philip Martin, a professor in the agricultural and resource economics department at the University of California, Davis, said to cut down on the administrative costs of reinterviewing families, it would be sufficient for families to be reinterviewed only every two or three years rather than annually.

To date, program administrators have reinterviewed migrant families whose children were recruited to the program only on a voluntary basis, and based on policy recommendations in non-binding guidance documents put out by the U.S. Department of Education, Gregg Wiggins, a spokesman for the department, said in an e-mail message.

The regulations also attempt 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 and agriculture.

Mr. Rosenthal said the Education Department has been saying the phrase means that recruiters must determine that migrants had the intent to get work in agriculture and fishing when they made the move—and it’s not enough that the migrants succeeded in getting such work.

He 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 found other kinds of work.

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

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

Mr. Martin of the University of California said the federal 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 responded to this proposal by saying 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.”

He noted that an example of a minimal service 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.

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