Wilson May Turn Down $42 Million for Schools : Education: He opposes the program's 'federal dictates.' But U.S. officials say the money has no strings attached.


Sitting in a bank account somewhere is $42.1 million in federal money for California school districts to spend on such Mom-and-apple-pie goals as keeping children in school and helping them compete in math and science with their peers around the world.

But Gov. Pete Wilson, who with conservatives around the country has said that cashing a check from the federal government is akin to turning the keys of local schools over to Washington bureaucrats, has not decided whether to accept the largess or send it back.

The money--part of $362 million to be made available in the second year of the national Goals 2000 program--is meant to help states and school districts by giving them money to set challenging academic standards and establish programs to meet them.

In July, however, Wilson wrote in a letter that the program has deteriorated into myriad federal dictates and that he would refuse to accept the money unless changes were made. Some in Congress, sharing some of Wilson's concerns, want to eliminate the $2-billion program.

On Thursday, the federal education department sent the state of California its share of the money anyway and wrote to Wilson offering to meet with him to address his concerns.

"There are no federal dictates in Goals 2000, nor are there any federal regulations issued as [a] result of this new program," the letter said. If Wilson's concerns cannot be assuaged, however, the money cannot be spent and would be reallocated to other states.

"We'll worry about that step if and when we get to it," said Michael Cohen, a senior U.S. Education Department adviser. "Our aim here is not to take the money back, it's to get it to school districts."

At stake is a federal program that, contrary to the concerns of its critics, has almost no strings attached. The eight "goals" referred to in the law's title include having all American children come to kindergarten ready to learn, and promoting parental involvement. Schools are to be free of drugs, violence and guns and students are to meet high standards in academic subjects.

School districts were to come up with a plan that served those goals and, based on those plans, districts began receiving part of the money earlier this summer.

If the new money is accepted, Los Angeles County school districts will share about $9 million over two years; Orange County schools would get about $2 million, and Ventura County school districts would wind up with about $900,000.

The money would support a wide variety of projects, such as, in Anaheim, development of curriculum and training of teachers to help students make the transition between elementary school and middle school. Simi Valley would use its share to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten and students in Newbury Park would benefit from improved math instruction.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is set to receive a total of $3 million which it plans to distribute to 221 schools to help them institute the LEARN reform plan, focusing on improved student achievement, higher standards and a reduction in the dropout rate.

A consortium of seven school districts in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County plans to spend the money to integrate computer technology and the Internet into a new curriculum on the environment.

Beverly Rohrer, the school superintendent in Redondo Beach, said the federal money "would be an asset--definitely an asset."

But conservatives across the country worry that, rather than an asset, the seemingly innocuous program plants the seeds of a federal takeover of schools, which have traditionally been a state and local responsibility. The outcry has been so great that some states, including New Hampshire, Virginia, Montana and Alabama, have either refused to apply for the money or have sent it back to Washington without spending it.

Joan Wonsley, a Dana Point parent who is campaigning against Goals 2000, said the testing it promotes to measure whether students are achieving academic goals amounts to "social engineering" by tracking students into certain futures based on their performance.

Goals 2000 officials say the program does mention testing and establishes academic standards, but they are voluntary, not mandated.

Maureen DiMarco, Wilson's top education adviser, said the governor wants to be sure that such concerns are addressed before agreeing to accept the money. Although the law's goals are laudable, she said, "the question is whether the money is . . . going to go for those goals or sidetrack us into other things."

"We have not said 'No thanks,' " DiMarco said. "If the money is truly a blank check, of course, we would take it. But if it is going to require you to do things that are in conflict with things you believe you should do, then we won't."

She said Wilson will probably stick by his earlier position of not making a final decision until after Congress and the Clinton Administration have decided on whether the program will be continued.

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