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De-Mandating in Illinois: State Board's 'Candides' Questioning 'Everything'

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Springfield, Ill.--With a fall-semester class schedule that includes his third year of Latin as well as first-year German, English, calculus, physics, and history, John Seamon might be expected to spend his summer resting up for his junior year's rigorous academic agenda or practicing for the Springfield High School soccer team.

Instead, he will spend 50 minutes a day for nine weeks learning about installment purchasing, budgeting, comparison shopping, and the "roles of consumers interacting with agriculture, business, labor unions, and government in formulating and achieving the goals of the mixed free-enterprise system"--as required by state law.

The Illinois General Assembly and the State Board of Education are tugging in different directions, and students like John are caught in the middle.

State law and the state board's rules require that a lot of "educations" be taught to Illinois schoolchildren--from driver and physical education to health, safety, career, and conservation education, and even honesty, justice, kindness, and humane treatment of animals.

They are requirements that have come under question and attack from a state board that has concluded, in a formal position paper: "Despite the best intentions of the state, its mandates serve to stultify creativity at the local level in schools where it could exist to a high degree, while not assuring that appropriate state controls exist on schools where high purpose and commitment are lacking."

Says Nelson Ashline, the state deputy superintendent: "When you look at the sweep of how these things developed, it was incoherent."

To try to reshape the system of regulating schools and make it more coherent, the state board has recommended a drastic overhaul of instructional mandates--repealing some, relaxing others, and, in some cases, strengthening existing requirements.

But in what might be considered a case study of how to approach such an endeavor and the political consequences of doing so, the Illinois board has run head-on into a legislature that not only has shelved bills implementing changes in the mandates, but also appears ready for a new effort to codify additional requirements for schools and students.

The conflict dates from April 1981, when, almost concurrently, State Superintendent Donald G. Gill and Gov. James R. Thompson precipitated the examination of education mandates that now has led to a soul-searching study of the state's role in education.

Testifying before a legislative committee, Mr. Gill casually remarked that the time may have come to "de-mandate" certain state requirements and give districts more flexibility to set priorities and spend scarce resources.

Governor Thompson, facing an emerging budget crisis of his own and eager to find ways to contain school costs, immediately proposed repealing all mandates and replacing them with block grants similar to those then being proposed for the first time by the Reagan Administration.

The state board quickly backed away, concerned that such a dramatic departure from tradition on such short notice would result in chaos. It countered with a proposal for a deliberative study of state mandates, and the Governor readily agreed.

Ironically, the board's review of classroom mandates--governing special education, driver, physical, bilingual education, and various other instructional programs--became neither a "de-mandate" study nor an economy move.

"This is not a money-saving thing," Mr. Ashline says. "There's no way making phys-ed elective in the last two years of high school is going to save money. They'll use the money to buy a science teacher because that's what the kids who are now required to take this will opt to do."

Neither was the board's goal to hunt for justification for eliminating mandates, he contends. It was agreed early that the project was to be an analysis that could as easily lead to bolstering requirements as to abandoning them, he says.

But early on, board members discovered they would have to start their study from scratch, and they directed the staff to begin working out a process.

"We had no analytical model to apply," Mr. Ashline recalls. "We decided to use a device that worked well for us in the past, and that was to presume that we couldn't, in advance, discern all possible avenues of inquiry. ... So what we would do instead is negotiate with the board a series of reasonable questions. We'd say, 'We're not sure these are all the questions, ... but we think these reasonably cover the waterfront."'

The board agreed and asked, with regard to various classroom directives:

What desirable condition or outcome is called for by the mandate?

Is there evidence that in the absence of the mandate, the condition or outcome will not be achieved?

As now defined, does or can the mandate yield the desired result?

Could the mandate be defined or implemented differently and yield the desired result?

Does the mandate reflect a compelling state interest?

"What those questions clearly imply is that there are some special burdens here," Mr. Ashline says. "The premise we operated on is that government bears a special burden of evidence when it chooses not just to cajole or issue guidelines or say, 'We think this is nice,' but it chooses its ultimate coercive weapon, which is to say in a law: 'You must do it."' The burden is on the state, he adds, to prove "in advance that what it is you're compelling is going to yield the desired results."

Armed with its mission and its set of questions, the state board's staff began its review of what became known as the "Phase I mandates"--those covering instructional and curricular matters.

A staff task force was established for each mandate area, with chairmen selected specifically, Mr. Ashline says, "because they knew nothing about the area. They were going to be Candide. They were going to question everything."

"I met with them and said, 'You are the first group that's going to get your salaries for the next few months based on how good a skeptic you are. If you're not a good skeptic, we're in trouble. Prove to me that you're the most skeptical sob under the sun and you'll have done your job."'

As the study moved from one mandate to another, more than mere skepticism set in.

"I have a feeling that as we go along we're becoming increasingly cynical about the effects of mandating subjects," Mr. Ashline says. "We're aware of the fact that there is probably no way for you to scale off which is most important and which is least. And to the degree you add new categories to them, you exacerbate the problem."

Educators and those paying for education are left to wonder whether consumer education or driver training, both mandated by law, are more important than science and mathematics, both unmentioned in state statutes.

'Short on Statements of Purpose'

The final staff report of the board's mandate study concluded: "Perhaps most critically, Illinois's mandates are short on statements of purpose (what is the intended outcome?) and long on statements of method (what must be included in the content, how much time must be spent, and the methodology). The state has not clearly identified what it expects students to know and be able to do as a consequence of their elementary and secondary schooling."

Adds Mr. Ashline: "Increasingly, the newer the laws got, the more prescriptive they got--to the point of how much time you've got to spend on something, without regard to individual differences between kids. It never said some kids may need an hour and some 30 minutes. It's like you got a bunch of ticky-tackies coming through the door, and they're all going to be treated alike. ... The most charitable thing you can say about it is that it was mindless."

As it pursued its study of mandates, the state board folded into the analysis another ongoing project: the development of a working definition of schooling to undergird all the board's decisions.

Notes Mr. Ashline: "We said to the board, 'One of the problems you have is that you're always being asked to make incremental decisions--should there be a granting program for drug and alcohol education, all these kinds of things. And you have to do them without any consensus as a board as to what the purposes of schooling are."

So, with the help of nationally prominent educators and scholars, who offered their views during workshops, the board ultimately settled on a definition that says simply: "Schooling is a formal process which has as its primary purpose the systematic transmission of knowledge and culture, whereby children learn in areas fundamental to their continuing development." Those areas include language arts, mathematics, sciences, social sciences, the fine arts, and physical development and health. The statement acknowledges that the schools have a "shared interest" with other agencies and institutions concerned with children, but says those functions--largely involving health and welfare--"are subordinate to the primary purpose of schooling."

According to Thomas L. Burroughs, a member of the board's policy and planning committee, the definition of schooling helped give focus to the mandates undertaking.

"As Phase I went along, and we began to see all of this come together, we were able to identify what constitutes real education," he says. "I do think we asked the right questions. It became a growth process; as we went along, the questions changed."

For example, he said, the staff's original emphasis during its review of driver education was on whether the program was effective. "Eventually," he notes, "there was a subtle shift to the question of, whether it does any good or not, does it belong in the school day?"

The process devised by the staff, Mr. Burroughs adds, prevented preconceived notions from directing the study and minimized the temptation to "reduce everything to dollar terms."

Ultimately, he adds, the board's recommendation grew out of "what we learned during the whole process."

The Status Quo

When the board proposed to eliminate driver-education requirements and to ease those relating to bilingual, special, and physical education, the state's interest groups were quick to defend the status quo. Although local school-board members and administrators have enthusiastically supported the state board's recommendations, more hostile--and representative--reactions have come from other organized interests.

From Elaine Hoff of the Association for Retarded Citizens of Illinois: "Parents of handicapped children will not give up their hard-won progress."

From Janet Hoerbert of Progressive Action for the Handicapped: "We find your ... recommendations to the special-education mandates totally irresponsible and foolish."

From Beverly Johns, president of the Council for Exceptional Children in Illinois: "We do not believe that a valid basis has been established for the assumption that 'society has developed a strong sense of fairness that would predominate even in the absence of a mandate."'

From Carmen Velasquez, leader of a Hispanic group: "This is a perfect plan to eliminate bilingual education."

From Eugene D. Brenning of the Illinois Department of Transportation: "Should the board decide to eliminate driver education in Illinois because of fiscal or other constraints, it would emphasize the fact that the board does not recognize traffic safety as a very important aspect for our leaders of tomorrow."

From Betty Keough of the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation: "Without physical education, youths spend five to six hours sitting. At the end of the school day, they are bused home, then spend hours playing video games, watching television and/or doing homework. The current man-date ensures that all youth are engaged in purposeful, physical activity at least some part of each school day."

From Reginald Weaver, president of the Illinois Education Association: "The iea thinks the state superintendent, whose job is to make policy decisions on educational issues for the state, wants to shirk that responsibility. The course he proposes will destroy public education.''

The union's reaction may be the most important of all. The iea, even more than its rival, the Illinois Federation of Teachers (which also opposed the changes), has concentrated much of its energy on state politics and wields substantial influence in the General Assembly.

When bills to implement the state board's decisions on driver and physical education reached the Senate Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, the iea didn't even have to flex a muscle, board staff members say. Proponents, they suggest, were so intimidated by the association's power that they volunteered to place the proposal in a subcommittee, essentially surrendering for this legislative session.

"We didn't have the votes," says Robert Leininger, legislative liaison for the board. "It was our choice to go to the subcommittee. It was that or let [the bills] be killed. [The unions] see these as jobs bills--a threat to dues-paying, card-carrying members."

George Thompson, chairman of the state board's policy and planning committee that spearheaded the study, says he is bitter about the experience. "The [National] Commission on Excellence [in Education] stressed the things the mandates study pointed out so well--we have problems with too many requirements," he contends. "Here we are finally wanting to see excellence in our schools and wanting to give districts more flexibility, and we get over to the legislature and because of the teacher unions and their self-interest, two years of work is destroyed. They're for teacher welfare. We're for kids' welfare."

"It was," says Harold Seamon, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, "strictly power politics."

In the four months before the 1982 general election, the iea spent $102,000 on legislative and statewide candidates, including $7,100 shared by a majority of the senate education committee.

"I talk to freshmen [lawmakers] and old-timers and they all say the first group they want behind them is the teacher organization," Mr. Leininger says. "And several say the money is the least important thing. It's the coffees, the forums, the fund-raisers, the telephone callers, the precinct workers that are really important. They've got a hell of an organization. That's the way I'd do it if I were them."

And as the teachers' representatives were getting the Senate to put the board's proposals on the back burner, the House of Representatives was cooking up new mandates.

By a lopsided margin, the House sent the Senate a measure setting minimum requirements in English, mathematics, and science. It is silly, proponents of the bill argued, not to mandate those subjects when the state has mandates on driver training and physical education.

Despite the apparent legislative endorsement of mandates and the perceived power of the teachers' unions, however, Mr. Leininger and others remain hopeful that the education mandates will eventually be reformed.

The fiscal crisis facing Illinois schools eventually will work as an ally in the mandates battle, the lobbyist maintains, even if the income-tax increase proposed by Governor Thompson is approved.

"We'll be lucky to get back what has already been cut, and if that is the case, a lot of teachers won't be hired back," Mr. Leininger says. "The pressure on the legislature from the public will be far greater once people see how drastic things are."

'A Hell of a Dogfight'

Rank-and-file teachers may even pressure their organizations' leadership to support changes in mandates when they see driving instructors on payrolls that are unable to accommodate mathematics or history teachers, he contends. "It may come down to a hell of a dogfight next year. It could be decided on who does the best sales job, and in this I might just have enough ammunition."

Mr. Ashline is confident that the state board will hand its lobbyist all the ammunition he needs, in the form of Phase II--its study of mandates governing such administrative matters as teacher certification, facilities, staffing levels, and the amount of time students spend in school.

That study is instructive, the state official suggests. "In 1950, no elementary school in the United States had a library. No elementary school in the United States had a full-time phys.-ed. instructor. No elementary school had psychological testing by a psychologist taking kids out of class. Guidance counselors? No way. No reasonable person would say those things are bad, frivolous. They're all considered--legitimately--important supports.

"How long was the school day in 1950? It was about as long as it is now--almost right to the minute. There is no question that good and meaningful policies of the state and everywhere else have absolutely removed time on task and things that have traditionally been viewed as the job of the school--namely, reading, writing, and arithmetic."

When the public and its representatives recognize the incursions that driver education and consumer education and career education and all the other "educations" have made into the school day, Mr. Ashline is convinced, they will be more willing to embrace the board's proposals.

"What holds hope for us is the Phase II studies," he told board members recently. "It's extremely important to keep those issues before the public. There is little question that very powerful political forces have another agenda. The only place we can go to assemble support is the public."

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