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Federal influence over school districts outweighs funding, some say

| Monday, Jan. 15, 2001

The federal government's influence over education far exceeds Washington's funding to states and school districts, education officials said.

'As a technical matter, you can say the federal government doesn't really direct anything,' said Tom Gentzel, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

'As a practical matter, the federal government has fairly significant influence.'

Although federal spending on education has increased dramatically over the past 10 years, it accounts for less than 10 percent of school districts' budgets. But that money often comes with costly strings attached, officials said.

'A lot of the burden for paying for these things falls with states and even primarily the local school districts,' Gentzel said.

Among the costliest federal regulations are those that govern special education, stemming from the landmark 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which guarantees disabled students the right to a free public education.

'IDEA is a good law. It's good for kids. It's good for families,' said Kaye Cupples, director of the program for students with exceptionalities for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

But it's also quite expensive, Cupples said. Educating a child with even minor learning disabilities costs the school district about $15,000, almost twice the $8,000 or so it costs to educate a typical student, Cupples said.

Severely disabled students can cost a district as much as $50,000 per pupil per year, Cupples said.

On average, the district receives about $600 per student in federal funds for special education, according to Cupples.

The largest federal education program is Title I, which gives money via the states to school districts with low-income students. School districts nationwide are set to receive $8.6 billion in Title I grants this year.

President-elect Bush has proposed giving states greater flexibility to spend Title I money, in exchange for greater accountability. Under Bush's plan, states would be required to test students in math and reading in grades three through eight who attend Title I schools.

Bush also has proposed allowing parents whose children attend failing schools to use their share of Title I money to pay tuition at a private or another public school.

The Clinton administration had targeted money to the poorest students, while Bush's approach appears to be more achievement-oriented, said Pat Crawford, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

'If there are philosophical changes in policy, it could affect us in a big way,' Crawford said.

Jonathan Potts can be reached at jpotts@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7900.

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