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Independent Schools Say N.Y. Rules Infringe on Their Autonomy

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Independent-school leaders in New York State, where a powerful state board has mandated school reforms that include curriculum and testing requirements for public and private schools alike, declared this month that the new requirements constitute an unwarranted intrusion that threatens their academic autonomy.

The 103 independent-school officials attending the annual conference of the New York State Association of Independent Schools unanimously passed a resolution asserting that schools already accredited through a state-approved process "are, and of right ought to be, free to determine their own curricula," according to Stephen Hinrichs, the association's executive director.

The New York Board of Regents' reform package, known as the "Action Plan," includes several new course requirements, additional content testing of students at specific grade levels, and increased graduation requirements for both public and private schools.

Regulations that put most of the plan into law were approved by the regents a year ago. Most provisions became effective this past September, but some will be phased in between now and 1994.

The New York board has traditionally wielded unusually broad authority over the governance of schools and colleges in both the public and private sectors. And the elements of its reform package that affect private schools are thought to be among the most demanding in the nation.

Robert L. Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Council for American Private Education, said he was aware of no other state with such "far reaching" testing and curricular requirements for private schools.

Independence Threatened

"We take exception to the plan in that it would impose upon our schools a state-designed curriculum and annual testing of that curriculum that infringes upon the independence of independent schools," said Richard F. Barter, headmaster of the Collegiate School, a prestigious New York City institution.

"We have expressed a willingness to conform to the state's desire for high standards, but we think the accreditation process clearly can be used," said Mr. Barter, who is also chairman of the National Association of Independent Schools' board of directors.

Mr. Smith praised the regents for their longstanding insistence on high-quality education, but said they "have clearly overreached the bounds of good educational sense in trying to impose upon private schools the same kinds of testing they are imposing on public schools."

The mandates, Mr. Smith said, "intrude into the very heart of the school program."

nysais members have instructed Mr. Hinrichs to meet with the state's commissioner of education, Gordon M. Ambach, to attempt to resolve their differences through discussion. In an interview last week, Mr. Hinrichs declined to discuss the nature of the exceptions or variances he would seek in the meetings, but said his member schools "want to avoid a confrontational situation." No meeting date has been set, he said.

State education officials reached last week said they did not know enough about the independent schools' resolution to comment on it.

Joan Arnold, the department's assistant commissioner for nonpublic schools, said state officials want to meet with the independent-school leaders. "We are committed to trying to work out these difficulties with them, as we have done in the past," she said.

'Not Unduly Restrictive'

But Arnold M. Bloom, a spokesman for the education department, said he thought the independent schools were overreacting. "If independent schools are already exceed-ing the requirements of the plan that apply to them, then there is really no reason to complain," Mr. Bloom asserted.

The parts of the action plan that apply to private schools were intended to improve the quality of education for all students across the state, Mr. Bloom noted. The regents, he said, felt the plan "was not unduly restrictive."

The nysais has consistently maintained throughout the drafting and implementation of the reform plan that schools accredited through a state-approved process should be subject to no further governmental supervision.

nysais member schools are all accredited through their own associ-ation or the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. Both processes have been approved by the regents. About 75 percent of the state's public schools are not accredited, according to Mr. Barter.

Independent-school officials are particularly concerned about the plan's content-testing requirements, which, they say, in effect, prescribe what should be taught in specific grades.

Mr. Hinrichs pointed out, for example, that the plan requires that 10th graders be tested in "global studies" beginning June 1991. This will disrupt the program at schools that teach modern European history in the 10th grade, he said.

Such requirements, the school of-ficials argue, would force them to delay introducing certain subjects in their schools, thus lowering their academic standards.

"If we accept [the plan]," Mr. Hinrichs wrote in the October issue of the nysais newsletter, "we accept that minions of the state, not parents and teachers, will henceforth be the authors of the educational programs we offer."

According to Mr. Barter, though, independent schools "conceptually" support what the regents are trying to accomplish by implementing the plan.

"One can do nothing but admire the commissioner's efforts to improve the state's schools," Mr. Barter said. "We really want the state to achieve what it wants to achieve, but we hope flexibility will be incorporated into this plan."

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