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Money for Public Schools

THE Clinton administration wants to make a significant shift in the pattern of funding for public schools.

It wants to redirect money distributed under one of the largest federal aid programs from more prosperous school districts to poorer ones in cities and rural areas.

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The rationale is that concentrating the funding, rather than spreading it thinly, will have a better chance of improving the lot of the nation's poorest school children. It is an idea worth trying.

The funding changes are contained in legislation to reauthorize the $10 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

They involve the so-called Chapter I program, a hallmark of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, aimed at helping poor students who need extra help in reading and other subjects. The program currently reaches 5.5 million pupils.

In the past quarter century, more than $76 billion has been funneled to local schools under the program.

The results have been checkered, at best. Education Secretary Richard Riley recently indicated that more children now live in poverty than ever before - almost one in five. Some 2.4 million children speak only limited English.

Conservatives have often cited the Chapter I program as evidence that money isn't the answer to the nation's school problems.

The administration argues, as some have in the past, that a program that reaches 93 percent of the nation's school districts is too diffuse to be effective. It wants to increase funding under the program from $6.3 billion in fiscal 1994 to $7 billion next year - and target it to the poorest districts and the poorest schools within districts.

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The problem will be getting it through Congress. The idea of taking some aid from one school and giving it to another has caused monumental political battles in the past, and will again.

That is understandable in an era of scarce resources. But precisely because there is less money to go around these days, it makes sense to try to get the most out of whatever funding is available.

The administration should, however, be sure that schools that do get more funding show results - which it promises to do. Just how should be one focus of lawmakers when the legislation comes up for its first round of debate in Congress within the next couple of weeks.

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