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California Law Loosens State's Hold on Districts

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Sacramento--Pioneering legislation went into effect in California last week with the aim of giving schools and school districts what they have long wanted--more freedom from state regulations.

Signed by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on June 28, Assembly Bill (A.B.) 777 offers the public-education system new flexibility by giving the State Board of Education the authority to approve requests from school districts to:

Waive for a one- to three-year period all provisions of the massive California Education Code except those dealing with school finance and personnel matters.

Coordinate for a one- to three-year period, without regard to most state restrictions, the use of funds from as many as 11 of the state's categorical programs in ways a district deems most appropriate.

Approval of district requests, however, is far from automatic. The districts must submit detailed program plans, and numerous state requirements have been established to guide the board's decision to approve or not to approve submitted plans.

Waiver Requests

The law says the board "shall approve any and all requests for waivers except in those cases where it specifically finds any of the following: (1) the educational needs of the pupils are not adequately addressed; (2) the waiver affects a program which requires the existence of a school-site council and the...council did not approve the request; (3) the appropriate advisory committee did not have an adequate opportunity to review the request; (4) pupil and teacher protection is jeopardized; (5) guarantees of parental involvement are jeopardized; (6) the request would substantially increase state costs; (7) the exclusive representative of employees if any...was not a participant in the development of the waiver."

An advisory report prepared for the Association of California School Administrators (acsa) by Peter Birdsall & Associates, a consulting firm that works with school districts and the legislature, points out that "the legislature did not repeal the laws in the California Education Code; it simply allowed for waivers. The significance of this distinction is that the legislature did not intend a wholesale circumvention of the law, but a means by which districts and schools could effectively adjust the law where it does not meet their local situation...."

Burden of Proof

"It should be recognized," the report adds, "that the burden of proof will primarily be on the agency requesting the waiver if there is opposition from the local level."

That means, says a lobbyist who helped write the bill, that "if you have serious opposition at home, your chance of rejection by the state board of education is probably high."

To win the freedom to coordinate funds from categorical programs without regard to most state regulations, a school board must take the following steps:

Give its approval for participation by a school, several schools, or all schools in the district;

Inform the community;

Establish a school-site council or designate one already in existence to participate in the program;

Obtain approval of the school-site council for participation in the coordination effort and have the council identify the funds and the grade levels it wants to include;

Obtain a school program plan, including a budget, developed and approved by the council;

And approve the council's plan and submit it to the California Department of Education.

The state department of education then studies the plan and submits recommendations to the state board of education; the board reviews the proposal, considers department recommendations, and makes a final decision within 60 days. If the board fails to act in 60 days, the plan receives automatic approval for a one-year period.

In addition to reducing red tape and paperwork, coordination of funding would enable schools to remove barriers that prevent them from serving all children who need extra help.

Resource Teams

Mr. Birdsall cites the plans of the New Haven (Calif.) Unified School District as an example of how districts could benefit from the new law. If it wins approval from the California Board of Education, New Haven will consolidate its categorical funding sources and develop resource teams at each school in the district to assist teachers with students who are not progressing satisfactorily.

Each team, Mr. Birdsall says, would be composed of a program manager, a special-education expert, a bilingual-education teacher, a reading specialist, a media specialist, a psychologist, a speech therapist, and the school principal.

The specialists, limited in the past to helping only those students eligible for a particular categorical program, would work with all students, Mr. Birdsall points out.

In addition, he explains, the team's services would be provided in the regular classroom, not in separate special-education classes--the widespread practice criticized recently in a study by the Rand Corporation. (See Education Week, Dec. 21, 1981.)

A.B. 777 resulted from the growing unhappiness in districts throughout the state over what school officials called an overly prescriptive tendency in recent bills enacted by the legislature, according to James M. Donnelly, chief acsa lobbyist in the state capital.

Instead of repealing all categorical programs, as many districts wanted, the legislature offered them an opportunity to avoid many restrictive state mandates, Mr. Donnelly says.

'Local-Control Language'

The waiver and consolidation provisions were added to A.B. 777, originally a school-finance measure, when supporters of the school-finance provisions decided they needed to make the bill more attractive to Republicans in both houses of the legislature and particularly to members of the senate, which tends to oppose categorical programs.

"We sought to incorporate some local-control language, which is popular these days, to give the Republicans something to vote for," one lobbyist explains.

By offering districts an opportunity to avoid state regulations, he adds, "we managed to save the cate-gorical programs from possible total destruction."

Many districts are expected to seek waivers from the California Education Code this year, but only a few will request an opportunity to coordinate categorical funds, Mr. Birdsall predicts. "They're holding up on the coordination part so they can see how pioneering districts like New Haven work it out," he adds, noting that much more activity in coordination of categorical programs is expected next year.

Supporters of A.B. 777 included acsa, the California Teachers Associaton, the California Federation of Teachers, the California School Boards Association, and the California Department of Education.

The new law makes California the first state to offer districts an opportunity to avoid many restrictions placed on them by a state legislature, according to the Education Commission of the States. An even more encompassing measure, House Bill 1732, is under consideration in Pennsylvania. If approved, it would let school districts disregard all state mandates for a two-year trial period.

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