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Cuts bite into lunch scheme

Hundreds of children, some as young as four, have been demonstrating on the streets of the capital against the education cuts approved by the newly powerful Republicans, writes Lucy Hodges.

Displaying the slogan "Pick On Someone Your Own Size", the crowd complained that Republican plans to replace the federal school lunch programme with block grants to the states would mean a $7 billion (Pounds 4.6bn) cut. The protesters are part of a growing movement against measures which, they say, will harm American children. "Children have to say no to a lot of things," said Toussaint Tingling-Clemons, a 10-year-old from a Washington middle school. "Food should not be one of them."

The Republicans are increasingly on the defensive over their plans to prune central government and hand control of the purse strings to the states. Education organisations and Democrats, including President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, are able successfully to portray Republican plans as hurting people who can least look after themselves.

Both Clintons have staged photo opportunities in elementary schools to hammer home the message that Republicans are being mean-spirited and to highlight "the compassion gap" between the two parties.

Before the children took to the streets, the national grouping of parent-teacher associations in the US complained loudly at its annual meeting about the proposed school lunch changes.

"More than 50 years ago, the National PTA was among the first to call for a federal hot lunch programme to address the needs of children who were going hungry day after day - thereby putting their health and future at risk, " said Kathryn Whitfill, National PTA president.

School lunches are only one item in a long list of changes being sought by the new Congress. Republicans deny that there will be any cuts in the amount of money available for lunches, though they do acknowledge funding will not grow at the same pace as the number of eligible children.

In contrast, they are quite explicit about the spending limits being planned in other areas of education. The cuts - a $17.3bn reduction in central government aid to education - are the deepest in more than a decade, representing 10 per cent of all federal spending on education. They would bite particularly hard in inner-city schools where many of the nation's poorest children live.

The reductions in spending would affect 500,000 children, according to a survey carried out by the Council of Great City Schools. They include a hefty cut ($140.3 million) in the Title 1 programme, which is designed to help disadvantaged pupils to read and count, and a $38.5m cut in bilingual education. A popular programme established under the Safe Schools and Drug Free Act, which gives money to schools to find ways to control weapons and drugs among pupils is to be cut by $472m. That leaves only $10m to fund the initiative.

Republicans want to see Clinton's scheme for improving standards and the curriculum in schools, known as Goals 2000, lose a quarter of its budget. They are proposing reductions in the Eisenhower Professional Development programme, which trains teachers in mathematics and science.

Also in the pipeline are plans to take $78.4m off vocational education and $12.5m from school-to-work schemes. There have not been such hefty cutbacks mooted since President Reagan called for a 25 per cent cut in federal government spending. In the end about 12 per cent was cut from education.

It is not clear how much of the proposed package of cuts approved by today's House will be supported by the Senate. The latter chamber is also Republican controlled, but is more independent than the House. Nor is it known whether Clinton will allow the proposals to reach the statute book. The president has the power to veto any Bill he does not like.

Given his stance on the lunch issue, it is difficult to see how he could do anything other than use his power of veto. With all the publicity in recent weeks - such as articles about poor children in parts of rural Mississippi who depend on school lunches for survival - it would be tough for a Democratic president to act otherwise.

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