Governors Warned School Reform May be a Two-Edged Sword
A cadre of the nation's governors has devoted an unprecedented amount of time and energy to promoting improvements in public education in recent years. But by becoming highly visible advocates of reform, they have also become obvious targets of the criticism that will emerge if evidence of improvements in the classroom is not forthcoming.
So reasons the author of a paper commissioned for the 50 governors and their senior advisors by the Council of State Planning Agencies, a membership organization of gubernatorial aides that is affiliated with the National Governors Association.
Jack A. Brizius, who directed policy-research activities at the nga for several years, cautions in a draft of his paper on the education issues ahead for governors that if they are not prepared for changes in the political climate, their greatly expanded advocacy of reform in education could hurt them politically.
A combination of factors--including the desire of the Reagan Administration to relinquish much of its policymaking authori-ty in education to the states, the popularity of school reform as a political issue, and the emergence of education as a key element in state plans to revitalize their economies--has contributed to the emergence of the so-called "education governors."
Other observers of the reform movement have suggested that if the governors' credibility were damaged, or if they diminished their role in the reform movement in an effort to deflect criticism elsewhere, school reformers might lose some of their strongest allies.
Mr. Brizius, who helped former Gov. William F. Winter of Mississippi develop a comprehensive school-reform program, notes in his paper, "Education and the Governors: Preparing for the Next Round," that education has been a high priority for governors for many years, but a priority of a different sort than it is today.
"Since education funding consumes the largest share of virtually every state's general-fund budget and since education is primarily a state-local responsibility, it has been natural for governors to pay close attention to education," he writes. "But as the public debate over education quality has grown in volume and intensity, the governors' role has changed. It has changed from being the provider of educational resources to the guarantor of educational performance."
This "fundamental change" in role, Mr. Brizius contends, has "placed governors squarely in the middle of the educational-quality debate."
In the past, he notes, governors and other elected state officials entered into a "marriage of convenience" with organized teachers and other educators, in which "all shared in the credit for increasing education funding, but took little of the blame for the failure of the system to educate students."
But, writes Mr. Brizius, "in seizing the initiative inherent in their new role" as the advocates of school reform, governors are "treading a difficult and uncharted path, because increasing educational performance is neither easy nor within their direct power."
Many governors, he notes, lack the ability to get school reforms implemented, largely because in their traditional role as "conduits of resources," they have had little leverage over the structure and workings of the educational enterprise in their states.
Only a handful of states, for example, reserve a Cabinet-level position for education and in just five states does the governor have the authority to appoint a chief state school officer, Mr. Brizius points out.
A leadership tradition of concern limited largely to appropriation levels has produced "few governors and fewer planning or policy staffs [that] have developed education expertise in areas which suddenly have become all-important," according to Mr. Brizius.
In effect, he writes, many governors have found themselves in the current climate of reform having to adopt the "Chinese-menu approach: choosing one from Column A, one from Column B."
So far, this approach has proved to be "relatively successful," according to Mr. Brizius, because public sentiment for education reform is substantial and there are "plenty of ideas to choose from."
"Yet," he writes, "one suspects that in the 'second round' of education reform, ... a more thoroughly developed policy process will be necessary," one that deals with more complex issues.
Top Advisers Faulted
Gloria L. Whitman, who, as an associate director of the organization of gubernatorial advisors, assisted Mr. Brizius in the development of the paper, says the lack of expertise among many governors' top advis-ers has had a more negative effect on the reform movement than Mr. Brizius suggests.
Senior policy advisors "have not had time to think through what they can do," she said in an interview last week. "The response has in many cases been superficial. Tough questions have not been addressed, nor have the issues been addressed strategically."
"The kind of dealings between those who know the answers to [the most pressing education questions] and those who can get things done has not been the best," she said.
Mr. Brizius predicts that "if governors continue to identify themselves with education performance, they will need to develop new mechanisms for influencing the decentralized and insulated education establishment and for measuring progress in the schools themselves."
"When the gubernatorial role was simply to provide resources to others, measuring educational performance was interesting, but not critical," he writes. "In the future, however, measurement of student performance, teacher competency, school-system performance, and the relationship between education and the economy will become ... critical to the governors."
Because of this, "it seems likely that the next wave of gubernatorial and legislative attention to public elementary and secondary education will involve structural reforms and issues of measurement of education performance," according to Mr. Brizius.
"If the performance of the schools lags," he said in the interview, "there will likely be changes in the governance in education. The governors may feel a need to take more control."