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Financial, Federal Issues Dominate Meeting of State School-Board Officers

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Boston--Talk of crisis and decline marked the annual meeting of the National Association of State Boards of Education here last week.

Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia complained to the state officials that the Reagan Administration was abdicating federal responsibility for education. John H. Strange, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said the proliferation of computers in the schools was raising a host of "moral, social, and ethical issues" for schools. And in the small-group discussion sessions, state-board members fretted over school-finance lawsuits, inequities in the distribution of block-grants funds, and the possible effect on public schools of the tuition tax-credit bill that is pending in the Congress.

But the most pessimistic and critical comments came from the nationally prominent economist Lester Thurow, who asserted that schools are one of the many American institutions responsible for dragging down the nation's productivity.

"If I were making a cowboy movie about the economy, everybody would be wearing a black hat," said Mr. Thurow, who is a professor of economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a columnist for Newsweek magazine. "I would argue that the profession you and I are in is one of the key American 'black hats,"' he said.

"We have created all kinds of public institutions that assume economic growth ... It's very hard to manage declining institutions well," he said.

Functional-Illiteracy Rate

The nation's educational system bears responsibility for failure to cure the 8-percent functional-illiteracy rate identified in American workers, he said. Other faults include the school curriculum: "Japanese children in 3rd grade spend 60 percent more time in school than my son of the same age," he said.

Because such differences affect productivity, "the rest of the world has caught up with us and they're running this economic race a little faster than we are," Mr. Thurow told the state education officials.

Regarding the current crisis in science and mathematics education, Mr. Thurow said, "The problem is that there is no federal or local commitment to solving the problem. If the school boards were going to solve the problem, there wouldn't be a problem, because they're the ones who let it happen in the first place."

But despite the negative mood, Joanne T. Goldsmith, the newly elected president of the association, said many of the board members seemed optimistic about reforms they had initiated to improve state or local problems.

"They're concerned about the fu-ture, but they're not despairing," said Ms. Goldsmith, who is the chairman of the Maryland state board of education.

"There is a sense that we can cope with what's coming down the pike for education. The board members are talking about competency-based testing programs and about improving requirements for teachers in their states. They feel good about their successes, about the leadership they have provided," she said.

The board members, Ms. Goldsmith said, were encouraged by the remarks of Governor Robb, who promised to oppose those in government who believe "that our governments must now choose which needs will go unmet.

"And of course," he said, "this belief has become a double problem for state and local school boards, because the Administration in Washington seems to have taken the position that the federal government, too, will choose which needs to meet, and that it will 'give' to the states those needs, including education, that it finds least interesting."

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