Battle Brews Over Administration's Plan To Focus Aid on Neediest School Districts

THE idea is deceptively simple: Concentrate what limited federal education dollars there are at the neediest schools instead of spreading them around so thinly.

It has been proposed in the past with limited success. Now the Clinton administration wants to move in this direction in a big way as part of its plan to overhaul the main government program for aiding the nation's poorest schoolchildren.

The move would mark a significant shift in the pattern of federal aid to public schools. But it will bring plenty of protests on Capitol Hill, where the idea of shifting education funds - in this case from wealthier districts to poorer ones in cities and rural areas - sets up sensitive regional and class conflicts.

``It will be a huge shift, and it will generate incredible battles on the Hill,'' concedes Marshall Smith, undersecretary of education in the United States Department of Education.

The administration's proposals are contained in legislation to reauthorize the $10 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a main source of federal aid to schools. Though Uncle Sam pays only about 6 percent of the cost of running the nation's schools, the billions that come from Washington are considered vital to many districts.

The biggest changes would occur under the Chapter 1 program, a hallmark of President Johnson's War on Poverty designed to help poor students. Under the plan outlined this week by Education Secretary Richard Riley, Chapter 1 funding would increase from $6.3 billion in fiscal 1994 to $7 billion in 1995. The money would be redirected, though, so that a larger share went to the highest-poverty districts and, within districts, to the neediest schools.

Administration officials argue that a program that gives 93 percent of all school districts - including those in the five richest counties in the nation - some kind of Chapter 1 funding is too diffuse to be effective.

Their formulas would shift about $500 million a year to poorer areas. This would mean more money for hard-pressed city systems like Los Angeles and poor rural districts like Owsley, Ky. But wealthier systems, such as Fairfax County, Va., would lose some of the money they now get. Sixteen states would lose financing under the program.

The administration proposes other changes in the federal aid plan as well. It wants to put more emphasis on teacher training and inject more accountability into the system.

Higher standards would be set for schools with large concentrations of low-income students. Schools would be expected to show progress in improving learning.

The proposed higher funding levels reaffirm the federal government's commitment to an antipoverty program that has inspired its share of controversy over the years. Conservatives have cited Chapter 1's lack of results as evidence that money is not the answer to America's education problems. Defenders argue it has done some good.

The administration's proposals contain elements that will please, and anger, both sides.

``I think it is an excellent idea,'' says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, of the targeting approach. ``[A]cross-the-board spending, regardless of the type of student being served, isn't working.''

Others applaud the plan for taking a broader approach, helping schools instead of just individuals, stressing accountability, and allowing greater local autonomy in how government programs are carried out.

To promote teacher training, the administration wants to take $400 million in block grant money and combine it with other funds to enhance professional development. While educators do not oppose honing teacher skills, they do not want to lose their block grants. ``We are very supportive of committing more resources to staff development but not at the expense of obliterating'' other funds, says Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association.

The major choke point, though, will be the issue of targeting. Many regions are already adjusting to changes in federal aid from the 1990 census. Now comes the plan to take from richer districts and give to poorer.

Some lawmakers suggest that a better solution would be to increase overall funding so no schools lose out.

Diane Ravitch, an education official in the Bush administration, says they wanted to concentrate resources too but were blocked by Democrats. ``The idea is going to run into a windmill of sharp blades on Capitol Hill,'' concurs Chester Finn, an education official in the Reagan administration.

The House will take up the legislation later this month. Passage, in some form, isn't expected until next year.

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