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Education 'Summit' Endorsed By House Panel's Witnesses

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Washington--In hearings before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education this month, educators and state officials from across the country strongly endorsed a Congressional proposal for a national summit conference on education, but they disagreed over its purpose, focus, cost, and even who should host and participate in the conference.

The witnesses testified on a bill sponsored by Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, that would establish a National Summit Conference on Education.

The bill states that the purpose of the summit is: "To develop workable educational solutions in response to the findings of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and other relevant documents, including solutions relating to student achievement, student discipline, teacher quality and compensation, curriculum content, and the role of the federal government and other levels of government and of private institutions in improving the educational system of the United States and relating to the resources needed for such solutions."

Nearly everyone who testified had something to add to that.

"When we first heard of Mr. Williams's plan to convene a national conference, we cringed," said Robert H. Mattson, associate dean and director of the Center for Educational Policy and Management at the University of Oregon."But since that first reaction, it began to make sense to us. We respectfully suggest to this committee, however, that it may want to narrow the focus of the conference ... to the role of the federal government, and other levels of government and private institutions" in improving school quality.

Representatives of other groups said they were concerned that the focus of the meeting was too narrow and raised questions about the special interests of gifted, handicapped, and minority children.

"A National Summit Conference on Education can be our first real opportunity to include minority students and their problems in a national discussion," said Toney Anaya, Governor of New Mexico. Mr. Anaya pointed to what he called "missing chapters" in recent education reports and urged that special attention to the problems of minorities be included in the summit bill.

Vocational education and women's education also need to be ad-dressed in the legislation, others testified.

Some witnesses stressed the need for the summit's approach and participants to be bipartisan.

"The question of education reform transcends party lines," said Linda Tarr-Whelan, director of government relations for the National Education Association. "A National Summit Conference on Education which is dominated by partisan considerations will be doomed to failure. We suggest the establishment of a bipartisan executive committee to be responsible for the selection of participants and for the overall planning and conduct of the conference."

The legislation currently states that one-fourth of the conference participants will be appointed by the President, one-fourth by the President from a list of recommendations made by the governors, one-fourth by the Speaker of the House, and another fourth by the majority leader of the Senate.

Harry Snyder, executive director of the Council on Higher Education of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, recommended that the selection process be revised "to weight the participation more heavily toward those who are closest to the needs and the problems--the superintendents of schools, the directors of governing bodies, the governors, and the state legislators."

Cost Called Into Question

The cost of the conference was also called into question. "There must be more money provided to operate the summit conference," testified M. Joan Parent, president of the National School Boards Association. Ms. Parent said that the one week planned for meetings was not enough time to accomplish significant work. She suggested that the summit meetings continue for at least six months.

Republican members of the subcommittee raised questions about the expense of the summit, suggesting that it might simply duplicate the plans of Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell for a similar conference. (See Education Week, Aug. 31, 1983, and related story on this page.)

"Now, we realize there are some who say that the need for this summit has already been taken care of," commented Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "The Secretary of Education has reviewed the commission's findings and recommendations in regional settings; he is reported to be scheduling a meeting this fall with leaders from the interested public. But one important ingredient is missing from the Administration's effort; that is, the involvement of Congress.

"There has been no path for the Congress to be involved in its proper role as the legislative body," Mr. Husk added. "Left alone, the Administration and certainly the Secretary of Education, cannot be expected to define a sharper role for the federal government in helping states and localities meet the challenge of increasing quality and equity at the same time."

Further discussion of how the Congressional summit meeting and Mr. Bell's summit meeting might work together was expected during the mark-up of the bill last week.

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