All-out opposition to a Reagan administration proposal to meld and slash 57 federal school-aid programs was vowed yesterday by some of the same groups that killed similar plans by President Nixon 10 years ago.
Some of the groups said they might not fight the general concept of combining the programs, which in fiscal 1981 totaled $5.7 billion in budget authority for elementary and secondary school aid, into two big "block grant" programs and then granting state and local educators wide discretion to spend the money as they wish.
But all said the other part of the Reagan plan, as outlined in a list of budget changes proposed by the Office of Management and Budget, would be totally unacceptable. It calls for slashing the 1981 figure of $5.7 billion by 20 percent in 1982, or more than $1 billion. As long as the two parts of the plan remain intertwined, the groups said, they would oppose the whole package.
"The Reagan education program looks like reverse Robin-Hooding," said William Wilken, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. "Taking from the poor, disadvantaged and handicapped students and giving chiefly to the well-to-do through tuition tax credits."
Greg Humphrey, chief lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers and president this year of an 80-group umbrella organization called The Committee for Full Funding of Education Programs, said the committee would oppose the cut. Charles Lee, long-time executive director of the group, said, "We are opposed to proposals like this that decrease the quality of goods and services for education."
Similar opposition to the proposal was voiced by Althea Simmons, director of the Washington office of the NAACP; Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, and Don Cameron, assistant executive director of the National Education Association. Jerold Roschwalb of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges expressed opposition to proposed cuts in aid to college students, which were set forth separately.
An aide to Rep. Carl Perkins (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, predicted, "Mr. Perkins will fight to his last ounce of strength against 20 percent cutbacks" in the elementary and secondary aid programs.
The strong opposition from education and civil rights groups was predicted by OMB Director David A. Stockman in the document laying out the proposals. "The proposal," he wrote after outlining the cuts, will "be characterized by opponents as a backing away from the 'historic' federal responsibility for assisting each group and meeting each need separately. Civil rights groups can also be expected to be disquieted."
The $5.7 billion block grant proposal involves virtually all the big special aid programs for low-income and disadvantaged children, including the huge program (more than $3 billion) of money for school districts with a high percentage of educationally disadvantaged minorities (Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), education for the handicapped (about $1 billion), bilingual education, money to aid in desgregation and school library aid. (It does not, however, include vocational education or impact aid.)
In 1971 and for several years afterward, President Nixon and later President Ford proposed uniting a batch of education grant programs, including the above, in a big block grant, arguing that having to administer two or three dozen separate programs and spend only as much on each as the government allowed was an intolerable burden on states and school districts.
They contended that local agencies could reduce paperwork enormously and have much greater flexibility to apportion federal money according to the needs of each district if the different grants were melded into one and the local agency given discretion to put the money where it thought best.
However, the plan was shot down in Congress by Perkins and other suspicious Democrats and by civil rights and some educational specialty organizations.
Many of the Democrats, including Perkins, feared that the ultimate aim of the plan was to provide leverage for reducing federal involvement and eventually withdrawing federal funds, although the plans offered didn't contemplate any major cuts.
Simmons, Edelman and William L. Taylor of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said civil rights groups had an added objection: that money earmarked under Title I of ESEA for extra educational services for disadvantaged minority students could, under a block grant approach, be diverted to other educational purposes. They wanted to make sure that "categorical" aid programs, earmarking money for inner-city schools, would be maintained.
Simmons and Edelman said yesterday that civil rights groups still fear that under block grants, money for Title I, which they said is succeeding in its goals of fostering school achievement by minorities, would be used for other purposes. "Block grants don't do as much for our groups," said Simmons.
Some of the education group representatives interviewed yesterday said they would be willing to keep an open mind on the block grants concept but only if it weren't made an instrument of cuts. But because it appeared that, as Humphrey said, the "real purpose isn't improvement of the programs but cuts," it seemed clear there would be very solid opposition to the whole package.
Humphrey recalled that during the Nixon-Ford years, the committee for full funding had repeatedly fought education cuts and, in fact, had been instrumental in getting Congress to override presidential vetoes on four of the seven occasions when Nixon or Ford rejected money bills containing large amounts of education funds.
Congress today, however, is in an economizing mood, and there are far more conservatives in the House and Senate than in those years. It isn't clear what the outcome of the cut and consolidation proposals will be this time.
"We've got our hands full," said Humphrey.