Hearings On Federal School Aid Begin With Calls For Fewer Strings
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
As Congress begins working on another five-year extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the legislation that funnels federal funds to public schools, state and local leaders are telling Washington in effect: give us the money and stay off our backs.
"Education policies and initiatives historically have been the domain of the states and their local school districts, not the federal government," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce this week. "Let us hold ourselves accountable and understand that one size does not fit all."
The committee is holding hearings on the education bill, the first step in a long and tortuous process that will eventually set the stage for U.S. House and Senate floor action on the legislation. The federal government spends about $15 billion annually supporting education from kindergarten through high school, about six percent of the total cost.
States provide a larger share of the money, but the biggest chunk is raised locally, primarily through property taxes.
Ridge, a Republican who was elected to a second term last November, leads one of the two states that declined a federal grant that would help teachers pay the application fees for national certification (Arizona is the other). Unlike teachers in most other states, Pennsylvania teachers receive no pay raise for certification.
In his first term as governor, Ridge unsuccessfully fought to push a school choice plan through his legislature."Unleash the creativity of the states, hold us accountable and give us the opportunity to partner with you," he said.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was conceived by President Kennedy and first passed under President Johnson, encompasses hundreds of programs designed among other things to help schools reduce classroom size, improve teacher quality, assist needy students and keep the school environment safe.
It also provides funds for innovative charter schools, which are publicly funded but generally outside the regular educational framework of states and communities.
Among those joining Ridge as leadoff witnesses on the measure were Gery Chico, the president of Chicago's School Reform Board, and Lisa Graham, Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Chico, who heads the third largest school district in the country and one currently acclaimed as a leader in education reform, said Congress could spend federal school aid funds more effectively by letting aid administrators bypass state and city official and deal directly with larger school districts.
He said two to five percent of so-called Title I money, dollars earmarked for needy students, is skimmed off at the state level for administrative costs, and that another two to five percent is deducted by city administrators.
Chico's proposal was endorsed by Keegan, who said she would like to see student-specific allotments of Title I money so students can take the funds to whatever school they choose to attend. Arizona has a strong school choice and charter school program.
Other panelists urged Congress to let more states take part in the Ed-Flex program a pilot program that gives 12 states additional leeway in spending their federal education dollars through waivers and other options.
The twelve states are Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Vermont.
But Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and one of the most vocal committee members during the first round of hearings, said some states in the Ed-Flex program don't have clear goals.
Miller reacted strongly to complaints from witnesses about federal regulations and stipulations that go along with federal school aid funds. "It is not the federal mandates that have brought down reading scores," he said.