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."
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