Radical ideas proposed for the nation's schools

August 02, 1999|By Neal R. Peirce

DENVER -- From New Jersey to Baltimore to Oakland, Calif., mayors and governors have been seizing control of public schools from failing school boards. Parents are being offered more choices for their children. Charter-school laws have passed in 37 states; this fall such schools will enroll 350,000 children. Voucher programs are increasingly being adopted.

A decade ago, these seismic shifts in U.S. education would have seemed wildly improbable. But they're fact today. And they raise fascinating questions: What changes might the next 10 years bring?

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) in Denver, an interstate compact of governors and legislators, appointed a school governance panel to ask just those questions. The panel (of which this writer is a member) isn't supposed to come up with a single, governance formula -- just raise ideas.

But the ideas surfacing are already causing jitters among school boards and teachers' unions. They include:

Decentralize school systems so even the hiring of staff is done by individual schools. Parents would choose schools for their children, schools would get to hire the faculty they prefer and teachers would be are free to shop around for the best positions they can land.

Make all schools charter schools, leaving each free to define its own mission and compete for students. School boards would simply let contracts for services?

Scrap or redesign school boards, creating instead education development boards or EDBs. The central EDB idea is that such boards would help coordinate educational services from a wide variety of resources, including local colleges, museums, foundations and such groups as boys and girls clubs that offer after-school programs.

How would an EDB be launched? Maybe by a city and interested suburbs jointly petitioning a state legislature for a new law giving an EDB access to school tax funds so it can contract with individual schools and other institutions. An EDB, which might be popularly elected or appointed, would not only lobby governments for cash, but also go after corporate and private contributions.

Looking for good teachers

Equally critical, an EDB would focus on human capital, especially recruiting talented, highly committed teachers. Many of today's teachers colleges are turning out poorly prepared instructors. An EDB might find ways to divert money from such colleges to train graduates from other disciplines how to teach, possibly in partnership with teacher unions.

Even if they're just trial balloons, such thoughts are radical enough to rile today's education establishment.

Recently, at a Denver hearing, representatives from a variety of school boards were critical of the Education Commission of the States' preliminary ideas.

Critics suggest that the ECS panel might have saved itself grief by limiting its probe of radical new governance to the nation's most seriously troubled inner-city school districts.

No one can argue that's where the problem is deepest. Minority children are increasingly falling behind. Too many children are unable to understand questions on new statewide performance exams. Dropout rates top 50 percent in some districts.

Gaining accountability

But the ECS governance group is pinpointing a deep, persistent issue: Given so many schools' troubling and perplexing problems, isn't it worth experimenting with the competition that charter schools would provide? Should school boards be guaranteed government funding regardless of academic results? With charter schools and EDBs, could we gain accountability?

These issues started creeping out of the bag in the past decade. Now they can't be stuffed back in again.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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