Academic-aid program for poor is criticized Federal Chapter I said to need overhaul

December 11, 1992|By New York Times News Service

The federal government's main program for helping improv the basic academic skills of poor children is failing those students and needs to be overhauled, says a report by an independent commission.

The $6.1 billion program, known as Chapter 1, accounts for nearly one-fifth of the federal education budget and sends money to about two-thirds of the nation's schools as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

[During the 1988-89 fiscal year, Maryland received $69.5 million for the program; of that, $29.7 million went to Baltimore.]

"We celebrate the program because it closed the gap in basic skills among children," said David W. Hornbeck, chairman of the Commission on Chapter 1 and former Maryland superintendent of schools. "But the need has moved to higher skills. Chapter 1, as currently structured, is not suited to those objectives."

Congress will vote on reauthorizing the enabling legislation next year, as it does every five years, and the report released yesterday is expected to influence how the Chapter 1 section of the act is revised.

In its report, "Making Schools Work for Children in Poverty," the commission praised the program as making strides in helping a generation of impoverished students reach grade level in reading, writing and math since it was created in 1965. But the program is hobbled by obsolete methods and low standards, said the panel, which was made up of educators and child advocates.

It said too little money reaches the poorest of the nation's schools, and that the program's main thrust -- pulling poor children out of class for 25 minutes of tutoring a day -- is out of touch with current educational theory.

Federal money would be better spent upgrading regular school programs in poor districts than in maintaining special outside programs, the report concluded.

President-elect Bill Clinton already has said he believes the program needs revision, and the commission said it hoped its eight major recommendations would be incorporated in the reauthorization of the program next year. If so, it would represent the first major overhaul of Chapter 1 since it was created as part of President Johnson's Great Society legislation.

The commission's main recommendations are:

* States should set clear, high academic standards for all children; Chapter 1 youngsters are now held to lower standards, the commission said.

* The financing formula should be revised to give more money to schools with higher concentrations of poor children; the money now reaches 5 million children.

* States must develop and enforce a system of rewards for schools that succeed and assistance for those that fail; now, schools whose students improve often lose a large portion of Chapter 1 funding, while those whose students fare poorly face no consequences.

* Schools should spend 20 percent of their Chapter 1 allocation on curriculum and staff development, to enable them to meet the higher achievement standards required.

* Schools should receive Chapter 1 money based on the number of poor children they enroll and be free to decide how to spend the money to meet their needs; existing requirements are too rigid, the commission said.

* Schools should develop better ways to assess students instead of the standardized tests now used.

* Parents should receive clear reports of their child's academic -- progress, instead of the "useless information on what percentile their child is in" that they now receive.

* States must better coordinate health and social services with public schools that serve Chapter 1 students.

The recommendations are likely to fuel the debate over the role of the federal government in education, said William H. Kolberg, a panel member and the president of the National Alliance of Business. "This debate is going to be a very long one, with long-term consequences," he said.

The commission, which made its recommendations following two years of study, did not put a price tag on its recommendations. But it seems the suggested revisions would certainly require more than the $6.1 billion appropriated for Chapter 1 in fiscal year 1992 and 1993.

Nor did the commission discuss how to change Chapter 1's financing formula, which has been criticized.

Mr. Hornbeck, the chairman, said the committee did not have that expertise and that any such fine-tuning should be done by Congress.

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