Northern Virginia school officials seemed dazed last week by news that President Ronald Reagan was planning even further cuts in federal aid to public schools.
In February Reagan announced plans to reduced federal spending on schools by 20 percent, but last week he upped the figure to 25 percent. Included in those cuts is a plan to consolidate numerous categorical grants into one all-encompassing block grant.
Local school officials say the proposals, if adopted, could be catastrophic, costing school districts millions of dollars earmarked for special programs. They predict the hardest-hit programs will be those designed to help handicapped students and poor children. p
"Everybody around the country is waiting to see whether the block grant total will equal the sum total of the categorical grants," says Fairfax County School Board member Toni Carney. "I suspect it will not.
"My fear is that in some school districts this will be used as an excuse to not do anything for handicapped children."
Under the current grant program, specific amounts of funds are allocated for specific programs. The proposed plan would provide a lump sum, and it would be left to local school districts to divide that money among various programs, as long as federal requirements for the programs were met.
Officials in the major school districts in Northern Virginia -- Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County -- say the proposal could cost them several million dollars in federal funds.
Larry Cuban, who this week left his post as Arlington superintendent, was the most outspoken in describing what he called the dangers of the plan.
"I feel it would be disastrous (because) . . . by consolidating (grants for such diverse projects as) vocational education and Title I (for poor students) they are going to have school boards deciding where to apply the squeeze . . .," Cuban said.
One result, Cuban adds, could be intense pressure from special interest groups trying to grab a lion's share of the limited money available.
"It's not that I don't trust the school boards, but they will be under extraordinary pressures," Cuban predicts. "I have a very strong feeling that the disadvantaged students and students without representation are not going to get their fair share."
At least one school board member, Gary Jones of Fairfax County, disagrees with Cuban's assessment. Jones was active in Reagan's presidential campaign and was a member of the president's transition team.
"I advocated this during the transition," Jones says. "The theory is that each locality knows its own needs best. I think it will be placing the responsibility where it belongs. If you're in favor of local control you shouldn't be afraid of local responsibility."
Others don't see it that way.
"It's ironic," says Alexandria Superintendent Robert W. Peebles. "The proposed cuts are intended to bring back more control to the local level, but really they only increase the burden on the local community."
Peebles said he fears that poor children around the country will be the losers in the Reagan cuts.
"I'm worried. I think it will have an adverse effect on the Alexandria schools . . .," he said. "Before, there was no question that kids who met requirements would receive services . . . now we have to make certain that local school boards understand how important some of these programs like Title I are."
Some area educators complain that the Reagan administration shows no signs of relaxing federal program requirements, even though it plans massive cuts in the monies that fund those programs.
"The mood is that they are not going to reduce the mandated programs," says Fairfax County Superintendent Linton Deck. "Either we've got to replace that money or we cannot meet the requirements."
Deck said Fairfax is not considering legal action to force the government to drop or fund the federally required programs. He did not, however, rule out such a move in the future. Fairfax school officials threatened such an action last year against Gov. John N. Dalton when his allocation of state funds to local school districts fell far short of what had been expected.
School officials say they can only hope that Congress will dilute the proposals to a degree that is both palatable to voters and realistic for school systems.
In Fairfax County, where school administrators predict a loss of at least $1 million if Reagan's proposal becomes reality, the mood is one of caution.
Deck recently scheduled meetings with Northern Virginia's two Republican congressmen, Frank R. Wolf and Stan Parris, in an attempt to convince the legislators that Northern Virginia children would suffer if the proposals are implemented.
"Congressman Wolf was very positive," Deck said. "I haven't met yet with Congressman Parris."
But in the school system's budget office, the outlook was not rosy. Budget Director Myron Cale said he heard Reagan was prepared to announce even further budget slashes next week and was considering making use of the dreaded "recision," or reducing funds already approved by Congress. u
"If that happens," cautioned Cale "it will be a double-whammy."