A threatened $2 million cutoff of federal emergency aid for the Prince George's County school system was averted Tuesday after federal officials agreed that the county had adequately met federal guidelines concerning students for whom English is a second language.
The county was saved only after Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) insisted that the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare officials not announce their final decision to cut off the money but instead discuss the matter with school system officials.
The department had charged in April that the county had not provided adequate data on the number of foreign-speaking students in the school system and had failed to treat the students equitably. And it backed up its dissatisfaction over the county's handling of the relatively small language program with a threat to cut off funds that benefit approximately 70,000 school children.
At Spellman's insistence, School Supt. Edward J. Feeney and George Rhodes, director of HEW's Equal Educational Opportunity office, held several meetings during the last two weeks, and on Tuesday Rhodes voided his office's tentative finding that the school system had not complied with HEW regulations.
In April, HEW officials told school officials to comply with the federals told school officials to comply with the federal reporting guidelines by June 30 or face losing the nearly $2 million in federal aid the county receives to help offset the impact of the 1973 court busing order. More than half of the school system's 142,000 students are served by remedial programs run with the federal money.
John Aubuchon, spokesman for the school system, said the money actually ran out on June 20 and the school officials were forced to lay off 76 school employees in the Emergency School Aid Act program, while transferring another 33 to other school system jobs.
When HEW's threat to cut off funds first came to light in June, school board attorney Paul Nussbaum explained it mostly as dissatisfaction with the the county's data on students who spoke English as a second language. He said the county had been unable to provide exact figures on how many of such students it had, partly because of frivolous responses to questionnaires.
Spellman characterized the episode as one marked more by "false pride" on the part of officials on both sides than by substantive problems. She said school officials did not fully inform HEW of details of the language program at first, and then later refused to admit it.And HEW officials, after initially criticizing the Prince Georges language program as deficient, did not change their minds when new information was reluctantly supplied, she said.
Feeney and Rhodes, however, learned in their talks "about what the two agencies really were attempting to do, and they found that in essence they were attempting to do the same thing," Spellman said. She said a $2 million cutoff over the language program would not have been acceptable.
"Seventy thousand children are affected by the withdrawal of the $2 million." she said "It's not just the money used for foreign languages - it's for remedial reading, tutoring, special teaching - things for the youngsters who have the most serious problems. Now here's HEW trying to withdraw those funds for the way only a few hundred are treated, or the way they think they were treated."