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School dollars to shift among states

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Wednesday, February 11, 2004 Posted: 3:18 PM EST (2018 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Millions of dollars for needy schoolchildren will shift from some states to others based on new poverty estimates, drawing heat from lawmakers of both parties whose schools stand to lose coveted federal aid.

The use of the latest population numbers is meant to ensure that poverty aid gets to the children who qualify for it, no matter where they live. But some lawmakers are balking, saying they were blindsided by the change.

"I have made my opposition to this recently imposed policy well known to officials at the Department of Education and will continue to aggressively seek a solution," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota.

Under the law, the Education Department is to use the most current population data in determining how to distribute more than $12 billion for poor children, unless officials decide that the numbers are unreliable or inappropriate.

A department official said Tuesday the agency will use the latest census numbers and other updated figures in calculating dollar amounts to thousands of school districts. That has the potential to significantly change the flow of money for the next school year.

"The bottom line is that the money follows the poor kids," said Todd Jones, associate deputy secretary for budget issues. "We are required to make the change unless we see the data is invalid, and we have seen no reason to believe the data is invalid."

At issue is money from the largest federal program for public schools, Title I, which supports disadvantaged children in reading, math and other academic subjects. Such aid is particularly important now, under the No Child Left Behind law, as Title I schools face sanctions for failing to make enough yearly progress.

The department plans to use census data released late last year, reflecting family income data from 2000. Critics say the 4-year-old data does not accurately portray the number and location of poor children for the 2004-05 school year.

"This latest Bush administration education policy change in how school aid is distributed is unnecessary, irrational and unfair," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Massachusetts, the ranking minority on the Senate's education committee.

It is not yet clear which states will gain and lose, and by how much. Education Department officials plan to release preliminary numbers soon and final ones by the spring.

Short notice
In the meantime, an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, requested by Senate Democrats, has rattled some lawmakers.

It shows 10 states would face cuts for the next school year and 18 others would get smaller increases than expected, for a total loss of $208.7 million in poverty aid. That money would be redirected to the 22 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The study also shows a drop in the number of children in poverty, from 9 million to 8.4 million kids.

"We have serious concerns about the wisdom of the change and whether it accurately reflects the current needs of our schools and low-income students," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Collins said she is inclined to sign a letter, written by Kennedy and others, that asks Education Secretary Rod Paige to reconsider.

Jones, the Education Department budget officer, said the estimate being circulated is "not accurate" in several cases because of problems with the underlying data. The Congressional Research Service declined comment.

Department officials and some lawmakers said critics missed several points, such as opposing the new poverty estimates would mean new spending levels would be based on even more dated numbers, from 1999. Also, they noted that even with the change, Title I funding continues to rise, up nearly $650 million for the new school year.

"If the updated information is not used, we will be taking money away from children we know need help the most," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose state would face a $30 million cut in its spending increase based on the CRS estimate.

Jack Jennings, director of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, said shifts in money among the states "happen, and they're supposed to happen." Lawmakers from states that lose money may add it back in supplemental spending bills later, he said.

Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, of New Hampshire -- another state that could face cuts -- said the department's move will ensure the highest percentage of money goes to the poorest districts. But he and others lawmakers expressed frustration they did not get more notice.
That element least expected is often the most welcome.

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