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Reagan public school aid formula: cut and consolidate

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Monitor / March 12, 1981


Compared to most programs in the federal budget, aid to the nation's elementary and secondary schools is both new and small. It began less than two decades ago and accounts for only 8 percent of the average school district's budget.

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But the aid carried a firm mandate to school districts to reach out to those with special needs -- from the poor and those not fluent in English to illiterate adults and the handicapped.

President Reagan now insists that Washington gained "disproportionate" control over school operations along with the help it gave. In setting forth its revision in the fiscal 1982 education budget, the Reagan administration appears to be trying to strike what it sees as a balance in control over education programs as well as a balance in the federal budget.

The administration proposes to cut federal aid to elementary and secondary schools from $7.2 billion to $5.6 billion -- 22.2 percent -- and to refocus the remainder to help only in areas where there is a "clear" federal role. Some of these cuts will not be made until the 1981-82 school year. Reagan also pledges to return much of the lost decisionmaking authority to states and local school districts by consolidating 44 separate grant programs into two sets of block grants. Thus, states and local districts could set more of their own priorities.

The President argues that at least 13 percent of the federal funds in these programs now go for administrative costs, which could be "drastically reduced" by the merger. In spelling out the proposed changes in a budget briefing this week, Secretary of Education Terrel Bell pledged: "Conflicting and duplicative regulations will cease to be a national plague."

The degree of cuts would vary in accord with the administration's efforts to restrict federal assistance to the "truly needy."

Operation Headstart, which prepares disadvantaged youngsters for school, would be kept intact. So would school lunch subsidies for the more than 10 million youngsters in families whose income falls below the poverty line. Specific federal food support for the 14.5 million students from middle- and upper-income families would stop, although states or local districts could continue subsidies on their own.

By contrast, close to 45 percent of the $779 million in "impact" aid Washington sends to district near federal nontaxable property, such as military bases, would be cut over the next two years. The President reasons that most parents involved pay state and local taxes toward their children's education anyway, so the extra help is unnecessary.

Similarly, in recommending a 25 percent slice in federal funds for vocational training, the President insists that the effect will not be that noticeable because state and local agencies already provide most of the training funds, and only 15 percent of the participants are disadvantaged.

"In the long run, constantly rising prices hurt students, parents, and teachers more than these spending cuts will hurt," insists Secretary Bell. ". . .This budget is designed to attack inflation but to retain a safety net for the needy. . . ."

As expected, the proposed cuts are drawing sharp fire from most of the lay and proffessional education organizations. Spokesmen insist current funding is inadequate as it is and say that the educational community is geared for an all- out battle to keep federal education spending intact.

"We have an extreme shortage of dollars in public education right now," insists Dale Lestina of the National Education Association (NEA). "We're for increases -- not for cuts."