A formula developed by the state of Virginia to distribute a new federal education block grant this year has created a windfall for some wealthy school systems while leaving poorer systems with serious program and budget cuts.
State Department of Education officials say they will report that the formula is the fairest possible, however, when they brief members of the grant's advisory committee today. They say federal law is responsible for the funding cut for poorer school systems.
Officials from school districts affected by the cuts are not so sure.
"I do not think the formula used for determining (federal grant) money is the fairest one possible," said Edris Jones, program director for the Norfolk school system, which received $120,000 less from the block grant this year than from individual grants last year. "I think a lot of other poor communities feel the same way."
The Chapter II block grant, created last year by the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act, combines 28 federal education grants into one lump sum appropriated by Congress and distributed by each state's education department.
Virginia received $9.8 million in Chapter II funds this year, 16 percent less than the $11.7 million it received last year from the 28 separate grants, said James E. Price of the state Department of Education.
Formerly, schools could apply for as many as 28 grants for a variety of projects. Under Chapter II, the state must distribute the grant money by a given formula to all school districts, whether or not they apply for it. The money can be used for projects ranging from acquisitions for libraries to computers to desegregation programs to environmental centers -- whatever a each school system thinks it needs.
The state late this summer distributed Chapter II funds using the new formula.
"Basically, 65 percent of the formula is based on a (student) head count and 35 percent on economic and remedial factors, to benefit students from poor rural and urban areas," Price said.
He said the formula resulted in a funding cut for school systems that had relied heavily on federal grants and an increase for some well-off communities that did not actively seek grants.
"It had a leveling effect," he said.
As mandated by the federal law governing Chapter II, Gov. Charles S. Robb last spring appointed a committee of parents, teachers and educators to devise a formula for distributing the grant money.
Committee members will meet in Richmond today for a briefing by state officials, who said recently they will report that the formula is effective and the fairest possible. The officials said most school systems are spending their Chapter II money on computers.
The 27-member committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis, created a formula based primarily on head count but with such factors as test scores, economic deprivation, and the high costs associated with urban and rural schools taken into account.
The Board of Education, which voted on the formula in the spring, eliminated the density factor. But education officials say the board kept the basic intent of the formula.
"I would not say the two formulas differed greatly," said Robert P. Schultze, a legislative analyst for the state House Appropriations Committee who monitored the formula's passage.
Members of Robb's committee agreed the formula passed by the board was similar in intent to the one they created.
"We wanted a formula to favor the needs of high-cost students in poorer systems," said committee member Shirley Tyler, former chairman of the Alexandria School Board. "The formula passed (by the board) does that. Our formula may have favored the poor more than the one adopted by the board. It is hard to tell."
Although the state intended the formula to favor poorer districts, the nature of Chapter II created the shortfall in some poorer districts and the funding increase in other wealthier ones. Since the state by law must allocate Chapter II money to all school districts whether they apply for it or not, some poorer school districts saw the federal money they received last year go into the coffers of schools that had few federal grants.
For example, Alexandria received $16,000 more than it expected under Chapter II this year, officials there said. A hastily formed committee of parents and administrators, required by Chapter II law, voted to spend the $53,129 the system received on computer terminals, computer programs and library books.
Meanwhile, Norfolk, cut by $120,000 under Chapter II, eliminated programs designed to ease integration problems, to keep students from dropping out and to educate guidance counselors on academic options for black students.
"One of the problems with block grants is that all districts get a share instead of most of the shares going to the truly needy," said Russell M. Busch, director of federal programs for the Richmond school system, which also came up short on expected funds under Chapter II.
"The formula could have taken more factors into account," he said. "But the problem is not so much with the formula as with the block grant format itself. The poorer systems are always going to come up short."
The federal law governing Chapter II states that primary consideration for distributing the funds should be based on student population, not need.
The cities of Danville, Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk and the communities of Charles City, Scott County and Charlottesville County were among the two dozen school districts in the state to receive less money under Chapter II this year than under the separate grants of previous years.
Communities hit hardest by Chapter II were those that relied heavily on funds from the Emergency School Assistance Act created in the mid-1960s to help schools desegregate. The competitive grant was eliminated and incorporated into Chapter II.
However, Price said funding from the act was limited by law to a single three-year appropriation. "Those communities would have lost their ESA funds in a year or two anyway," he said. "Under the formula, they will always have a good portion of Chapter II coming their way. They may lose in the short run but in the long run they will be taken care of."
The Chapter II grant is also distributed to private schools that meet certain federal criteria regarding race and sex discrimination.