Lansing school official Richard J. Halick is the first to say that the federal government can make a real nuisance of itself with its "file cabinets" of rules and regulations.
There was the time a couple of years ago when the feds from the Office of Civil Rights in Chicago complained that girl athletes weren't getting equal treatment with boys: no whirlpool in the girls' locker room and too little practice space for the girls' basketball team.
Then there was the flap that arose when the school administration proposed assigning one person to run both the migrant and bilingual programs, to save federal funds. Federal authorities insisted that the district hire separate directors for the programs, at an added cost of $25,000.
Yet for all that, Halick is deeply worried about the 20 percent cutback in federal programs for education proposed by President Reagan. If the price of less federal interference is to be less federal money, then Halick wants no part of the Reagan plan.
Michigan schools are hurting financially. A property tax rebellion similar to successful ones in California and Masschusetts is under way and state aid to the schools was cut this year by $100 million.
The Lansing school district expects a deficit of $2 million next year. To meet it, the administration is considering cutting out such traditional programs as junior varsity sports and school counselors. "Everything is up for grabs unless it involves standing in front of 25 kids with a blackboard behind you," said an official.
In Lansing, the federal government's $7 million in aid represents only 9 percent of the school system's total financing. But it is a crucial margin that until now cushioned Lansing's low-income children, migrants, handicapped and minorities against the impact of the worsening money crunch.
Thirty of the school district's 49 public schools, and about 5,000 children, receive some form of federal benefits. These range from extra help in reading and mathematics and special help in English for Spanish-speaking children to hot lunches and clothing for poor children and counseling for disadvantaged parents. Much of the money directly benefits blacks and Hispanics, who make up almost a third of Lansing's 25,300 school children.
The prospect that a substantial amount of the aid will be withdrawn raises profound questions that go beyond the immediate concern over money.
Communities insist that they cannot raise enough funds now for the general school population, let alone for special programs for the disadvantaged. But Reagan is responding with a question for the communities: dIf towns and countries with the most direct interest in good schools are unwilling to provide the resources to support them, why should a distant federal government? In effect, he is pushing responsibility and accountability back on the communities.
In Lansing, the federal government has poured tens of millions of dollars into the schools since the mid-1960s, despite the presence there of the headquarters of Oldsmobile, a huge international company that until the automobile industry's recent troubles measured its profits in the millions of dollars. With such resources, Reagan appears to be asking, why should U.S. taxpayers have to step in where local communities will not?
At Gier Park Elementary School, where 40 percent of the parents do not have telephones and 49 percent of the children come from homes where the parents are divorced or separated, principal Diana Rouse has a straight-forward response:
"If the federal government doesn't do it, who will?"
About a quarter of Gier Park's 400 children are black. Another 35 percent are Hispanics -- children of people who came to central Michigan from Mexico or Texas to pick apples, onions or potatoes, and stayed. Nearly half the children at Gier Park receive some sort of "compensatory" education, paid for by the federal government.
Four and a half days a week a bilingual Spanish-English teacher is at the school, working with the Hispanic children. Half of the day a home and school worker is there to work with a group of Indian children, under a federal grant from the office of Indian education.
Federal money has paid for warm winter clothing for dozens of children.
"You might ask why should the schools buy coats," says principal Rouse. "Because they need coats to get to school. Because they won't go to school if they have to freeze to death. And if we don't get them in school, how are we going to teach them? Coats and education go together here."
Federal money also pays for a school counselor, Leslie Fadem, who works with children and parents. She has organized "alcohol groups," "divorce groups" and "anger groups," at which families share experiences and become more familiar with the school.
"We are doing a lot of parenting," acknowledges principal Rouse. "But if we don't, who will?"
In many of the classrooms at Gier Park, adults huddle with small groups of three or four children, helping them read, or form written letters and sentences, encouraging them. Gier has 13 of these "teacher aides" whose job is to work with "Title 1" children who qualify for extra help under the $2.2 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- a pillar and the Great Society's antipoverty program.
Halick said that these teacher aides could lose their jobs if the federal aid cuts go through.
This is because federal or state mandates would make it extremely difficult to cut other programs, such as bilingual education, Halick explained.
Two years ago, Lansing was ordered by federal authorities to establish a comprehensive bilingual education program -- under threat of losing millions of dollars of federal funding. The district put together a $1.2 million program that combined some existing federal money with new state money. In addition to providing bilingual instruction for Spanish-speaking youngsters, the district also had to offer additional help for a small number of Vietnamese, Laotian and Arabic-speaking children.
This mandate remains, but state funding has declined from $247 a child a year ago to $145 this year and is expected to fall to $98 next year.
"The base is crumbling out from under us," said Halick.
School Superintendent Matthew Prophet feels the federal fund cutback is "ill-conceived and possibly ill-motiviated," and goes on.
"The federal government has done things that local communities could not or would not do. They wouldn't desegregate the schools. They wouldn't provide compensatory programs for the disadvantaged. Now people are saying no to the property tax, and superintendents are being forced to become the politicians par excellence who make people do what they don't want to do. I have grave reservations whether the public schools can survive this."