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.
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."
Many educational leaders argue that the administration's cuts are extraordinarily deep and therefore unfair. They say the combination of inflation and the reach of some cuts into other departments, such as the school lunch program in the Department of Agriculture, actually bring the education trim to an average of more than 30 percent.
"The education cuts have been deeper by far than those of any other Cabinet-level department," insists American Federation of Teachers lobbyist Greg Humphrey. "It's really an assault, and we think it might be the beginning of a three- year program to phase out federal aid to education altogether."
The timing in particular nettled some educators.
"This puts us back behind the hammer just as compensatory education is starting to pay off -- just as we're starting to see significant improvement in the test scores of children from low-income families," says Dr. John Dow, superintendent of schools in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Indeed, some in the educational community view the proposed cuts as yet another sign of a lack of importance this administration places on public schools. They say that, along with the current education buedget proposals, the President warmly endorsed a tuition tax credit to help the parents of private school students and opposed the establishment of a Cabinet-level department for education.
"I don't think there is a Reagan education policy," suggests Arnold Fege, director of government relations for the National Parent Teachers Association. "There's an economic plan and it's being allowed to dictate the policy."
Although the educational community is not as uniformly opposed to consolidation as years ago when President Nixon proposed a remarkably similar plan for special education revenue-sharing, few leaders want to leave such major programs as aid to the disadvantaged or handicapped to the "whim" of state and local officials deciding priorities.
"In essence, the cities and states are being given a blank check," says Althea Simmons, an educational specialist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization opposed to consolidation on the basis of its past experience with untargeted grants. "We remember that revenue-sharing was used for a lot things, but the 'truly needy' didn't get their fair share."
As some educational policy analysts see it, the Reagan administration probably can get consolidation of most educational programs, however, in exchange for a lesser budget trim. Former California school board president Mike Kirst recalls that when Reagan became governor of California, he also took a "thunderously tough" initial approach to costs, but he proved an adept bargainer when faced with strong opposition.
"He'd take what he could get, but he was not an ideologue," says Dr. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. "If this administration really wants the added flexibility [of consolidation], it can get it. But 25 percent is too much of a real dollar cut," he says.
He considers a 5 to 10 percent slice a more acceptable "deal" and a more accurate estimate of what could be saved in administrative overhead costs by a merger.
Whatever the final figure, school districts are apt to get little help from outside sources to make up the difference. An NEA study shows that more than 40 states now have tax caps or spending limits beyond which they cannot go.
"I think taxpayers will have to realize they can't have it both ways," says Joseph Pollack, superintendent of schools in Flint, Mich. "We educators understand the need for a reduction; that is the mood of the country. But citizens must understand that the effect will be reduced services."