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State Boards Aim To 'Get Out in Front' on Reform

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It was the word most often heard here, as some 200 state-board members gathered for the annual meeting of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Hamstrung by their limited political influence, their dependence on chief state school officers for information, and their lay status, participants said, many boards have had to sit by and watch governors, legislators, and special commissions push the school-reform movement forward.

But as policymaking gives way to implementation and monitoring, state boards, and the national association that represents them, are preparing to play a leading role.

"We need to get out in front," said Kenneth V. Hilton of Delaware, the president-elect of nasbe. "The times demand it," added Gene Wilhoit, the association's associate executive director.

Big Dues Increase

To demonstrate how serious they are about becoming more active, nasbe members voted to increase their membership dues substantially--raising total dues revenue from about $300,000 a year to $450,000--and tied the increase to a new nasbe agenda.

Previously, dues had accounted for only about 20 per cent of nasbe's budget, with grants accounting for the balance, said Phyllis Blaunstein, nasbe's executive director.

According to Michael Cohen, a nasbe staff member, the dues increase will help the association wean itself from grants tied to projects of only marginal interest to state boards.

"That's why the major issue here is a dues increase," he said.

The increase will fund the association's new agenda, which according to nasbe documents, is designed to help state boards achieve four "critical objectives," including:

Keeping the reform movement going;

Empowering themselves by assuming leadership in policymaking;

Managing tension between centralized state authority and local control; and,

Developing planning strategies that optimize boards' control over their agendas.

State boards can achieve these objectives by serving as intermediaries between the public and the education community, by taking "firm, timely positions on appropriate issues," and by strengthening their operating procedures, the documents state.

nasbe can help by providing technical assistance and information, by demonstrating how to build political support and develop media skills, by forming alliances with other associations, and by lobbying aggressively, among other activities, according to the documents.

"That's where we're going to put our money," Mr. Wilhoit said.

Traditional Weaknesses

Just as nasbe's shifting priorities and the dues increase reflect a desire on the part of state boards to become more "proactive," it also reflects their traditional weaknesses, experts say.

Board powers vary widely from state to state, depending on the way in which their members are chosen and the board's relationship to the chief state school officer. In 27 states, the board appoints the chief, while in 18 others the chief is elected. In most states, the governor appoints the board, but in 11 states board members are elected.

Most boards have traditionally not played a major policymaking role, in part because they lack political clout and do not have independent staff, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

"This round of reform is not different from others in that reform typically did not start with the state board," said Mr. Kirst, a former member of the California State8Board of Education. He cited the New York State Board of Regents as a notable exception.

"In many states, boards didn't have the power or the resources to make the changes they wanted to make," said Lorraine McDonnell, a political scientist with the Rand Corporation. "Many of them were very frustrated by that."

"They may heve felt left out," added Susan Fuhrman, a senior research associate at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "The movement was so strong that everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon. Some traditional areas of board authority went by the wayside."

But now, experts say that state boards have an opportunity to have a major impact in shaping reforms.

"Their era is really dawning now," Mr. Kirst said. "Much of this legislation is flexible and left open to definition, so now is when the state boards will have the most influence, in writing the rules and regulations."

"It gives state boards of education a fantastic opportunity to do as much or as little as they want to do," Ms. McDonnell added.

Some board members see the reform movement as an indictment of their past performance, while others feel that they have not gotten enough credit for their accomplishments.

"We should feel indicted," said Richard C. Owens, a member of nasbe's board of directors who sits on the Georgia state board. "But we didn't have the clout or whatever to pull it off."

Mr. Cohen said: "The trick for boards now is how do they keep the money flowing? The governors and legislators have in effect said we'll pay more to do something different and better. And if you want more, you better show us it's working."

However, he added, "Bottom-line outcomes are going to be long term in coming, while there is going to be pressure to show gains in the short term. The best thing for boards to do is to say, 'I can't tell you that kids are reading more or better, but we're getting better teachers, they're taking inservice training, and the kids are taking more of the courses we want them to for scores to go up.

"That's the kind of leadership role boards need to play," he said.

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