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Washington Update

Black Caucus Demonstrates
Support for FCC’s E-Rate Decision
For the Congressional Black Caucus, the chance to influence a major decision on education was too good to pass up.
In what they termed an “unprecedented” visit, 15 caucus members filled a hearing room at the Federal Communications Commission as it voted on future funding for the e-rate, the discounts available to low-income schools, and libraries to encourage access to new technologies and the Internet. Nearly 100 members of Congress also signed a letter to the FCC urging support.
Created in 1996, the e-rate faces strong opposition from conservatives who call it an unfair tax on consumers. Telecommunications companies contribute to the e-rate, but some say the firms simply pass on the costs to the public. But supporters say the program plays a valuable role in linking disadvantaged youth to technology.
“The ‘E’ in the e-rate should stand for equality,” says Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Congressional Black Caucus chairman who was among those in attendance at the FCC hearing.
After debate, FCC commissioners narrowly approved full e-rate funding by a 3-to-2 vote. The decision means the agency will spend $2.25 billion on the program for the 12-month period beginning in July. Last year, under pressure from conservatives, the commissioners cut funding back to about $1.9 billion for an 18-month period.
The vote shows that the FCC “has not been afraid to stand up against the forces that would seek to undermine” the program, Clyburn says.
The caucus was not the only organization pressing its case on the e-rate issue. The day before the FCC vote, the Republican-led Senate Commerce Committee brought all five FCC commissioners to Capitol Hill for a hearing in which many voiced their displeasure with the program.
About 32,000 school districts, schools, and libraries have benefited from the program so far, says FCC Chairman William Kennard, who voted for full funding. The program, he said, plays a major role by “recognizing that access to technology is essential for future jobs and an important step necessary to close the digital divide.”
Despite the vote, conservative Republicans have introduced legislation to change the program substantially. Should those bills clear Congress, they likely would face a presidential veto. Education Department officials lauded the FCC vote to fully fund the program.
Under the e-rate, schools and libraries are eligible for telecommunication discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on poverty rates.

Fear of Prolonged Budget Wrangling Worries Education Advocates
With only three months to go until fiscal year 2000, education advocates again are raising the specter of another budget “train wreck” that could wreak havoc on K-12 and higher education spending.
The chief causes for concern are House Republicans, most of whom are unwilling to increase budget caps imposed two years ago to balance the federal budget. The federal government is now running a surplus, but so far the GOP rank-and-file has resisted suggestions — even among some in their own leadership — to rethink the budget caps.
As a result, student aid advocates foresee cuts of more than 10 percent in major education programs, a scenario likely to face veto threats from the White House.
The Republican plan is “simply not realistic,” President Bill Clinton says. “It is a blueprint for chaos and we can do better.”
The House GOP first recommended $78 billion next year for the budget category with education, employment, and human service programs, a cut of $10 billion from current funding.  Republicans recently have softened that stance, saying they would find more money through cuts in other spending categories.  However, they reiterated their opposition to lift the overall budget caps, which would have given them a bigger pie to divide among all federal programs.
In recent years, Congress and the White House have gone down to the wire on an education spending bill, often failing to reach agreement until after the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year. Each year, this protracted debate also raises concerns about possible government shutdowns similar to those during the 1995-96 congressional session.

Advocates Seek
High School Aid Program
 Concerns about issues from school shootings to the education pipeline are prompting some educators to call for a new federal program to help America’s high schools.
This year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) presents just such a vehicle to provide funding, says Samuel Halperin, senior fellow at the American Youth Policy Forum, based in Washington, D.C.
Congress does provide $8 billion to schools through the Title I program, but only about 8 percent of these funds reach high schools, Halperin told a Senate committee.
While acknowledging there is “no simple solution for what ails high schools,” Halperin says a small new federal initiative could target school dropouts and help those in school prepare for higher education and careers. Some of these activities, from school-to-work transition to volunteer service learning projects, “make academic studies more meaningful by linking schooling to real-world problems,” he says.
“Unless we mean to write off a whole generation while our various reforms take root, we must address those who are today out of school and not yet on a career track,” Halperin said.
Using ESEA to better target high schools was the focus of another Capitol Hill forum June 4 on the future of school-to-work programs. Funding for such programs end in 2001, yet a draft report from issue experts also recommended using ESEA as a vehicle to secure additional funding.
The Clinton administration also appears to welcome such discussion. The Education Department released a new blueprint for ESEA in May that included $50 million to help high schools. The plan would support school improvement efforts in 5,000 of the highest-poverty schools — provided they already are taking action to improve education.
Such a move may face Republican opposition, however. As part of their ESEA plans, many GOP members want to loosen federal rules and permit portable education grants that at-risk students could use in a variety of public and private settings.
 Debate on ESEA will continue this summer and fall.

Legislators Seek to Reunite
Black Dads with their Children
Last month, a diverse coalition of policymakers publicly expressed their support for a variety of new initiatives aimed at reconnecting estranged African American fathers with their children.
The statement grew out of a conference held late last year at Morehouse College and is contained within a report released last month. It urges Congress to provide $2 billion to support the wide range of grass-roots fatherhood programs that have been cropping up around the country. It also cites the need for African American leaders to “recognize the high priority of restoring the Black family” and suggested that civil rights organizations should move the issue to the top of their agendas.
Currently, 70 percent of African American children are born to unwed mothers and 80 percent will spend substantial time without a father (see Black Issues, April 19, 1999). Regardless of race, approximately 40 percent of all American children live in homes without their biological fathers, the Morehouse report says.
The role of fathers, particularly among the poor, began taking on new importance after Congress rewrote the federal welfare laws in 1996, according to a recent Washington Post story. Since then, fatherhood programs have developed into a crucial component of the nation’s social policy, with hundreds of programs aimed at fathers springing up across the country.
“We catalogued maybe 200 fatherhood programs around the country about five years ago. Now easily there are 2,000,” Wade F. Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, told the Post.
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) is trying to build bipartisan support for a bill that would address many of the issues raised in the Morehouse report. The legislation would fund grass-roots fatherhood programs, pay for a public relations campaign to promote the virtues of fatherhood, and support job training for poor, unskilled fathers, according to the Post.
The fatherhood problem is heavily influenced by money – or the lack thereof. Another study done by Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Well-Being, found that four of five single fathers are “romantically involved” with their children’s mothers at the time of childbirth. Half of the couples actually live together, and 85 percent of the men provide financial support during pregnancy and say they plan to continue supporting their children.
 However, that tie tends to become loosened as time passes. Often, the fathers cannot afford families. And although some states have stepped up measures to collect child support from deadbeat dads, there is no clear strategy for dealing with what the Morehouse report and others call “dead-broke” dads — fathers who simply can not afford to pay.
At press time, sources close to the issue said they expected fatherhood legislation to be introduced in Congress before the end of June.
“The federal government’s interest in this subject preceded the report,” says Dr. Obie Clayton, the director of the Morehouse Research Institute and the author of the report — Turning the Corner on Father Absence. “This is something that has been going on since the ‘96 welfare reform, when men were left out of the loop. As we speak, [Congress is] debating a $2 billion package on the issue. We released the report … in a push to get favorable legislation.”        

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