WASHINGTON—Persistent flaws and possible fraud undermine migrant education funding, the Bush administration believes.
So now, the Education Department wants to change how school districts get their federal aid. The move could alarm some teachers, but also could help school districts in states such as California, Texas and Florida, home to more than half of all migrant students.
"A problem was identified," said Alex Goniprow, a supervisory specialist in the federal Office of Migrant Education, "and the states and us have moved very aggressively to face up to it."
On Friday, the Education Department proposed potentially far-ranging migrant education revisions.
Some jobs would no longer count as migrant farm work. Some states would lose money because of student eligibility errors. Other states could gain money. Educators would do more double-checking. All the revisions are supposed to improve the distribution of some $386 million a year in migrant education funds.
"We know there have been issues and concerns concerning eligibility," Ernesto Ruiz, director of California's migrant education office, said Friday.
Established in 1966, the federal migrant education program funds instruction, vocational training, guidance counseling and more for a population made needy by seasonal moves and language barriers.
There are about 330,000 identified migrant children in California, with nearly half living in the farm-rich Central Valley.
Fresno County, for instance, serves 30,000 migrant students, while Merced, Stanislaus and Madera counties serve nearly 22,000 students.
Texas has reported some 116,000 migrant students, and Florida has about 50,000.
California receives about $130 million of the overall migrant education total, more than any other state. Texas in recent years has received about $53 million and Florida about $26 million.
States claim their shares by reporting how many migrant farm worker children their school districts serve.
The money helps, educators agree, but problems keep recurring.
In particular, some school districts claim migrant education funds they don't deserve. Eligible students must be members of a still-migrating farm worker family, having moved within the past three years. Repeatedly, though, money has helped families who have settled down, prompting auditors to take a second look.
California's statewide self-examination found 5.4 percent of identified migrant students to be ineligible. Texas, likewise, found 5.6 percent of migrant students ineligible, while Florida found 8 percent ineligible. Other jurisdictions didn't do even this well.
In Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., follow-up reviews found that 100 percent of the students claimed as migrants belonged to settled families. In Maine, 75 percent of the supposedly migrant students had settled down; in Georgia, the error rate once hit 30 percent.
"In some cases, the errors may be actionable as civil or criminal fraud," the Education Department declared Friday.
The Education Department proposal, published without fanfare in the Federal Register, is now open for public comment through June 17.
Most migrant education errors probably stem from poor training or lack of quality control rather than deliberate intent, officials say. Even so, officials called the error rate, which approaches 10 percent nationwide, "very troubling."
"Over the last several years, the department may have awarded (migrant) funds to states on the basis of inaccurate and, in some cases, perhaps significantly inflated state counts of eligible children," the Education Department added.
In response, the administration wants to take errors into account when distributing funds. States with relatively fewer errors in identifying eligible migrants, such as California and Texas, could receive more money. States with high error rates, such as Maine, could lose funds.
Potentially, officials say, an estimated $38 million could be redirected.
Tighter eligibility standards would also apply. For instance, revised technical definitions would mean a father who drives a truck carrying livestock or a mother who works with processed wheat in a bakery would no longer count as migrant farm workers.