JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Education Department officials are expressing concerns about a federal plan to give states more power - but less money - for education.
A bill pending in Congress would completely eliminate the U.S. Education Department. The majority of the department's funding and duties would be turned over to the states.
Stephen Barr, coordinator of federal programs for the Missouri Education Department, said he and other department administrators fear several effects if the Department of Education Elimination Act passes.
One effect would be that education would lose its only voice in Washington, according to Russell McCampbell, an assistant state education commissioner.
But the most troublesome effect, Barr said, is that losing the federal department means money would go directly to the states in the form of block grants, possibly causing less money for education overall.
"If we go to a block grant system, there will be a definite decrease in funding," McCampbell said.
The bill before Congress does not specify the size nor details of the block grants. Instead, the federal Education Department would decide what money should be distributed to where.
Generally, congressional Republicans have argued that block grants are the answer to the federal budget's problems.
U.S. Rep. Mel Hancock, R-Springfield, is one of the bill's cosponsors.
Hancock's press secretary, Sam Coring, said Hancock has been a strong supporter of eliminating the Department of Education because of the federal government's inability to work with local school districts on education.
"[Hancock] believes that education is essentially a local matter and having the federal bureaucracy involved in that is a serious mistake," Coring said.
A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Kit Bond said Bond "has been supportive of block grants because he believes states and localities can better serve its citizens than the federal bureaucracy."
But Barr said block grants would do Missouri schools no good if the federal government doesn't give any guidelines or expectations on how the money should be spent.
"Congress has to say, 'this is what we expect to see for this money,' rather than just throw it out there," Barr said.
Giving block grants without any guidelines likely would result in poor management of the funds by the states, Barr said. If money isn't used efficiently, eventually taxpayers won't feel comfortable spending money on education fearing it would only be wasted, he said.
Hancock's press secretary, Coring, said Congress never gives out block grants without some direction on how the money should be spent.
The state education official, McCampbell, said he sees one advantage to the bill's passage: "getting the services closer to the people."
McCampbell's area of expertise, vocational and technical classes, could benefit, he said. Block grants may cut down the bureaucratic confusion in federal job training programs, such as registering for unemployment while being retrained.
In terms of creating bureaucracy for the Missouri Education Department, more employees probably would not have to be hired if the bill is passed, McCampbell said. However, he said the department that oversees federal education programs would need to reorganize its staff to keep up with its new duties.
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