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Independent Schools Fear Reforms Threaten Their Autonomy

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Washington--In the face of a school-reform movement that has prompted explicit new state directives concerning instructional matters, leaders of independent schools fear they could lose their independence.

Panelists at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools, held here this month, reported a tendency on the part of state lawmakers to "lump" nonpublic and public schools together in school-reform legislation, promoting a uniformity that may be undesirable.

"Independent schools should be able to determine their own curriculum," Stephen Hinrichs, executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, said in an interview last week. "It is important to maintain educational diversity in the state. Different kids need different schools."

Speaking at a session on the changing re-lationships between state governments and independent schools, Thomas Read, president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, listed several reasons for state lawmakers' increasing focus on education: Highly publicized reports have detailed the shortcomings of public schools, and the growth of home education and fundamentalist schools has presented states with regulatory problems.

"The potential for spillover of intrusive regulation is growing," Mr. Read said in an interview. "The state legislators want to improve schools; their motives are not bad. But their actions could threaten the independence of the independent schools.''

As an example, Mr. Hinrichs recounted how he attempted to protect the 108 member schools in his organization from New York's reform package, known as the Regents' Action Plan.

Recognizing that the state's public schools were ripe for change, Mr. Hinrichs said he did not fight the plan, per se. But he strongly opposed the Regents' intention to treat all schools, public and nonpublic, similarly.

Pressure from Mr. Hinrichs and other groups with similar interests, such as Roman Catholic educators and home-school advocates, resulted in modifications to the Action Plan; a statewide syllabus was recommended rather than required, and exemptions and variances to the plan were allowed.

But the plan adopted by the regents last year nonetheless included several new course requirements, additional competency tests, and increased graduation requirements for private schools, to be implemented between 1985 and 1991.

"It is not the plan we would have drafted," said Mr. Hinrichs, who disagrees with the notion that schools' deficiencies can be "cured by a centralized plan."

Legislators' zeal has prodded independent-school associations to3move from a somewhat reclusive position into the unaccustomed role of state-level lobbyists, speakers at the meeting said.

Changing Attitude

"Our previous attitude was, 'The state hardly knows we are here, so let's just not deal with them,"' said Adele Q. Ervin, director of external affairs for the nais

"Now, we can no longer afford to be stuffy," said Mr. Read.

The degree to which other states will include nonpublic schools in their reform efforts is unclear. But John C. Esty Jr., president of the national independent-schools group, last week estimated that half of the states are either considering legislation or will soon be proposing legislation that would affect private schools as well as public schools. Of particular concern, he said, are laws that would mandate curriculum content and texts and those that would require private schools to hire state-certified teachers.

But Patricia Lines, director of the law and education center at the Education Commission of the States said last week that she did not believe the states would move to directly regulate private schools.

"There is always the possibility," Ms. Lines said. "But based on what I've seen, I don't think their fears will materialize."

She argued that states have tended to accommodate private schools, liberalizing their rules concerning home education and minimizing regulation of fundamentalist schools.

But even if states do not directly regulate the private schools, the in-dependent-school educators said, as lawmakers mandate curriculum content, specific textbooks, increased certification standards for teachers, a longer school day and year, and tougher graduation requirements in the public schools, the private-school sector will feel pressured to maintain parity.

Indirect Effect

"When states mandate for public schools, private schools feel the impact," said Edgar T. McCleary, executive secretary of the Florida Council of Independent Schools.

Ms. Lines acknowledged that private schools would be indirectly influenced by state reform efforts. "If you're a parent and the public school is meeting six hours each day, how likely will it be that you will send your child to a private school that has a four-and-one-half-hour school day?" she asked.

Looking After Interests

Mr. Read and Mr. Hinrichs offered their colleagues several pieces of advice on how to look after their interests in the state capitals. Among their suggestions:

Recognize that legislators are legitimately concerned about the quality of education in the state.

Stay current on the educational issues facing legislators.

Get to know legislators and their staffs, and make your views known to them.

Offer alternatives to unacceptable proposals.

Get to know and work with other groups, such as Catholic educators and home educators, that have simi-lar interests and concerns.

Serve on state advisory councils.

Do not accept state funds, as they will ultimately lead to state control.

Reform Questioned

n.a.i.s. officials at the conference also expressed concerns about the content of school-reform efforts and urged the new secretary of education to help prevent the reform movement's momentum from becoming "distorted."

Richard F. Barter, chairman of the n.a.i.s. Board of Directors and head of the Collegiate School in New York City, said that excellence has become a "coined word" of the reform movement. "The public, for the sake of excellence, is agreeing to types of state-mandated reforms that really won't produce excellence," he said.

"Many of the state reformers aren't starting with a knowledge of what, in fact, makes a good school," Mr. Read said. "Many of the changes seem to be of an incremental nature without addressing issues that relate to quality. Doing more doesn't necessarily make it better."

During a meeting with Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the independent-school leaders "cautioned him not to allow the current momentum, the momentum the Bell report generated, to become distorted, abused, and maligned--and therefore destroyed--because it may be another decade before American education has an opportunity again to create in the minds of the American public this much positive concern about improving education," Mr. Barter said.

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