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Many in Teachers’ Union Want Education Department to Remain

July 3, 1995

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ In Long Beach, Calif., where Janet Hawk teaches, some elementary schools do a great job of winning private grants to pay for field trips or extra computers. Other schools win hardly any grants at all.

It’s one reason the Naples Elementary science teacher feels Congress should keep the Education Department.

``You have all these differences in state money, in local taxes, in the school’s ability to get these grants,″ Hawk said. ``You really need someone looking out for the rights of the kids who are underserved.″

Gathering Sunday for their annual convention, many teachers in the nation’s biggest teachers union, the National Education Association, echoed those thoughts.

Hoping to keep up public support for schools, they criticized proposals in Congress to eliminate the federal agency.

But among the 9,000 delegates elected to represent 2.2 million teachers, not all felt the same.

``Personally, I think it’s a waste of money,″ said Andrew Balash, who teaches high school French in Geneva, Ohio. ``I really believe parents and teachers in their local schools know what’s best for that school.″

Balash acknowledges he’s in a minority here _ he also strongly supports home schooling and tax money for private schools, both of which the NEA officially bemoans. But he is not alone.

``The Constitution doesn’t say anything about a federal role in schools,″ adds a friend, Ed Weber, who teaches math and computers at a suburban Cleveland high school.

Even among teachers who support the Education Department, many, including Hawk, said they want the agency to stay mostly hands-off, pushing neither too many regulations nor too much paperwork.

Education Department officials contend they have cut back on regulations in recent years and are promoting local control. They point out their role is limited because the federal government provides just six percent of public schools’ money. The rest comes from state and local taxes.

But critics say the agency, created during the Carter administration with the NEA’s urging, pushes its views by requiring states and local schools to toe a regulatory line to receive money.

``In some cases the extra money might be helpful. But I still don’t think you need a department,″ said Balash. ``Parents and teachers know best where the money’s needed.″

In Congress, some Republicans want federal education money to go in block grants to states, giving governors leeway to distribute it to schools.

Other Republicans propose merging the agency with the Labor Department to cut back on employees and save money. President Clinton supports keeping the it as it is.

Under all the proposals, some department functions, such as a loan program for low-income college students, would survive and be switched to other agencies.

But Martha Mitchell, who teaches disabled preschoolers in Zanesville, Ohio, worries what would happen to the rules governing how schools must treat disabled children.

Some of those rules predate the department, but they have been broadened considerably since its creation. Mitchell points out that, not long ago, many disabled youngsters were denied a spot in public schools.

``You need a Department of Education to look out for these children’s rights,″ Mitchell said. ``Districts have a real tendency to overlook them.″

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