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Private-School Officials Fear Reforms May Infringe Upon Their Autonomy

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Although they welcome the public attention generated by this year's national reports on education, officials of private schools say they are concerned that reform initiatives now under consideration in the states could imperil their independence and consequently hurt their schools.

No major organization that represents the interests of private schools has yet promoted any set of reforms for the schools to pursue, but most school officials said they were considering changes on a "school by school basis" as a result of the reports.

Richard Wallace, the only representative of private schools on the National Commission on Excellence in Education, said they have relaxed their academic standards almost as frequently as public schools in the past 15 years. Many of those schools must revamp their programs to "stay one step ahead" of public schools and attract students and teachers, he said.

"When we think we're beyond all this [discussion of reform], we're in trouble," asserted Mr. Wallace, who is the principal of Lutheran High School East in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. "Many nonpublic schools have been lessening requirements" to attract students in recent years, he added.

Other private-school leaders criticized both the proposals of the excellence commission and other study groups and the initiatives undertaken by many states. They oppose, they said, strengthening requirements for graduation and teacher certification and lengthening of the school day and school year.

"The reactions that is taking place in many instances are knee-jerk, quick-fix legislation," said Maryann Eckhoff, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the St. Louis diocese. "It's what I call the 'more and more concept'--more courses, more time. It's almost always more."

The dominant concern expressed by many private-school leaders, however, was that the surge of school reforms will lead to increased regulation of private schools, which the private sector traditionally has opposed with vehemence.

John Esty, executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools, commented that "a great deal of resentment from people in public schools" toward private schools could lead public educators to press for inclusion of private schools in the reform proposals developed by the states.

Currently, the authority of the states to regulate private education varies widely. Missouri's constitution, for example, explicitly prohibits state involvement in private education, but both New York and Minnesota are heavily involved in financing and setting standards for private schools.

A group of private-school organizations in New York has begun to lobby for the exclusion of private schools from certain parts of the State Board of Regents' education-improvement plan. The organizations contend that the plan's testing and curriculum standards infringe on the traditional independence of private schools.

"Tests are perhaps necessary in large, impersonal districts, but I don't believe they would tell parents or teachers anything new," said Stephen Hinrichs, executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, of the regents' proposal to add 10 days to the school year for additional testing at all levels of schooling.

Mr. Hinrichs also contended that the state's new curriculum standards--which would require all schools to teach certain topics at specified times and would test all students according to the state syllabi--would rob teachers of their ability to work closely with individual students. He added that the increase in the school year from 180 to 200 days would drain private-school resources without improving the quality of instruction.

Said Mr. Esty: "Contrary to most people's understanding of private schools, they don't have money coming out of their ears. Increasing the school year would be an economic disaster." Mr. Esty and others vowed to lobby against inclusion of private schools in state reform packages.

"There are a great deal more state efforts to mandate curriculum, and that's very troubling," said Robert L. Smith, executive director of the Council for American Private Education. "The freedom of each school to develop its own program is generic to their whole mission."

Far-Reaching Response

The General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists has initiated perhaps the most far-reaching response to the reports. National officials will meet with leaders from nine regions across North America to adopt a single testing system, consider increases in foreign-language, writing, and mathematics instruction, and start a teacher-recruitment campaign.

They will also express their opposition to state initiatives that they believe infringe on their autonomy, an official of the schools said.

"We know there are certain things that have to be done," said F.R. Stephan, education director for the conference's North American division. "These reports have been prodding us into action, no doubt about it."

Other groups--such as the Council for American Private Education, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Catholic Education Association--have responded to the reports with conferences and position papers.

Private educators praised some parts of the reports--such as the call for a community-service requirement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the attention given writing in the reports of the Carnegie group and the Twentieth Century Fund, and proposals for improving the compensation and status of teachers.

But many educators also said the reports addressed private-education issues only "as an afterthought." Only Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, the report written by Theodore R. Sizer, former headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., included significant references to private education, they said.

Private-school educators appear to agree that the recent reports have drawn attention to a recent decline in the quality of many of their schools, particularly in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and English. The reports also pointed to the need for programs to teach technological "literacy," they said.

"Private schools fell into some of the same traps as public schools in the early 1970's--watering down the curriculum, emphasizing [elective] courses," said Regan Kenyon, executive director of the Secondary School Admissions Test, an organization formerly affiliated with the Educational Testing Service.

Mr. Wallace of Lutheran High said the number of credits required by private schools graduation has dropped from about 25 to about 21 in the last 15 years. Most preparatory schools still have the same admissions standards, he said, "and that's a lowering of standards because the [admission] tests are outdated."

Mr. Smith of cape said an informal survey of member schools found a drop in the number of students taking courses in foreign languages, mathematics, and science; Mr. Esty of the nais said the number of juniors and seniors who take less rigorous courses is "astonishing."

Edward W. Cissel, the headmaster at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, said any action to improve the compensation and status of public-school teachers would also improve private schools' faculties. He said private schools have increasingly drawn from the same pool of prospective teachers in recent years.

"The growing shortage of teachers ... is a problem that transcends the public-private [separation]," Mr. Cissel said. "If we don't do it together, we'll end up competing for a pool of poor teachers.

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