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State Leaders Jousting Over Policy Control In Massachusetts

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Ever since the Massachusetts legislature approved a $200-million-plus education-reform package this past summer, key state leaders, including Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, have been locked in a struggle with the state board of education for authority over education policymaking.

That confrontation intensified late last month with the release of a draft of a management study that accused the Governor's office of "hindering" the state board. And the conflict came to a head this month when the House chairman of the legislature's joint education committee threatened to strip the board of its authority to appoint the state's education commissioner.

"If we dropped a nuclear bomb on the department of education, we'd be doing the one thing that helps kids most in the commonwealth," said Nicholas Paleologos, a Democrat who helped write chapter 188, the education-reform law.

Mr. Paleologos confirmed that legislation has been introduced that would create a Cabinet-level education secretary appointed by and accountable to the Governor. The current commissioner, John H. Lawson, submitted his resignation last summer and is scheduled to leave his post in January.

"If it comes down to preserving an anachronistic and contentious board or implementing chapter 188, I'm coming down on the side of 188," Mr. Paleologos said.

Gerard Indelicato, the Governor's chief education aide, insisted that Mr. Dukakis is "not interested" in appointing the education commissioner. "What the Governor is interested in is getting a full share of the department's interest and leadership," he said.

"We're not trying to take away the board's authority. But we've invested a lot of political capital in educational improvement and our Gover-nor is going to be involved. That's going to happen," he said.

Mr. Indelicato suggested that the board should spend less time "meddling" in the day-to-day affairs of the education department and more time focusing on "important issues."

The struggle for power comes at a critical time for the Massachusetts board and the state education department: Not only is the board seeking a new commissioner, but the passage of the reform law also puts pressure on the board and the department to redefine their roles and see to it that the law is successfully implemented.

"We're at a critical wrinkle in time," Mr. Paleologos said. "The conflict exists over who is going to make the crucial choices in education for the next two decades, since those choices will be made in the next few months."

Mary Ellen Smith, the chairman of the state board and a Dukakis appointee, agreed that the state's education efforts have entered a crucial period. "What we have is a tremendous opportunity to make changes with a new piece of legislation, a management study, and the hiring of a new commissioner. The ultimate irony is that we have so much conflict we may not be able to get it done," she said.

National Problem

According to officials of the national associations that represent state boards of education and state education commissioners, boards and departments elsewhere are under similar pressures as a result of the education-reform movement.

Across the country, boards and departments have been pre-empted by governors, legislators, and special commissions in making educational policy, in some cases creating resentment and confusion.

Many education agencies are just beginning to transform themselves from regulatory bodies into providers of technical assistance to local districts struggling to meet reform mandates, said Phyllis Blaunstein, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

But, like Massachusetts, few of the states that have put millions of dollars into the reform movement have provided funds for their boards to implement and administer the reforms, said Bruce Hunter, director of state-federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers. As a result, board members in many states are worried that they could be left "holding the bag," unable to successfully administer reforms or document their effectiveness.

"State boards and state chiefs are going to have to assess this for themselves," Ms. Blaunstein said. "It may require the moving around of some staff and letting some go. But I think we're going to see some shakeups in departments."

"It's a problem everywhere, not4just in Massachusetts," Mr. Hunter added. "Everyone wants to pay the cost of what goes on in the classroom; no one wants to pay for administration."

Accommodation Reached

Early this month, Governor Dukakis reached an accommodation with board and department officials, agreeing to provide them with some $285,000 to hire consultants to help implement the reform law.

But according to the management study critical of the Governor's office, it will take more than $10 million and 35 new employees to administer the reforms over the next three years, although the study suggests that funds could be saved by eliminating some existing positions.

The $100,000 study also called for greater autonomy for the board, both in relation to the Governor's office and the commissioner. It recommended that the board have the right to reallocate its budget, and that it have a full-time staff member.

"A lay board should be continued and should be supported in exercising leadership to ensure that the educational policymaking process is coordinated and based, to the extent possible, on educational needs rather than politics," it stated.

The Governor's office acknowledged that it had originally asked for the management study, hoping it would recommend a reorganization of the state department to better implement the reforms. But, since the study did not call for such a reorganization, Mr. Indelicato said, the board should now take the initiative and restructure the department.

"What we don't agree with is that they need $11 million," he said.

"At no time has anyone talked about how the 700 people in the department could be shifted" to implement the reforms, Mr. Indelicato said. "People in the agency tell me you can't do it. I say you can. They should at least make a good-faith effort before asking for new staff," he said.

Mr. Paleologos agreed. "Their attitude is: 'Let's do everything we're doing right now whether it's right or wrong,"' he said.

But Ms. Smith, the board chairman, said the department has already shifted personnel to implement the reforms. And Terry Zoulas, director of media communications for the board and the department, pointed out that half the fiscal year went by before the Governor agreed to fund any new positions. "There was a lot of concern that we were not going to get any money," he said.

"If we have to simply reorganize and shift people, certain things we do won't get done," Mr. Zoulas added.

Much of the conflict in Massachusetts now centers on the selection of the new commissioner. The terms of three board members are scheduled to expire in January, and the Governor and his allies in the legislature want his new appointees--not the current board members whose terms are expiring--to help choose Mr. Lawson's successor.

Ms. Smith said the board has already compromised by extending the application deadline and by agreeing to let the new board members participate in the final selection process.

"I'm confused as to why there's a problem," Ms. Smith said. "The challenge is to make a decision as soon as possible but to allow for inclusion of new board members, and we've done that."

Asking the board to postpone all action on the matter until after new board members are appointed would be "asking the board to abdicate its statutory obligation," she said.

But Mr. Paleologos accused the board members whose terms are due to expire of wanting to "go out in a blaze of counterproductive authority."

"A lame-duck board should not be able to dictate educational policy," he added.

"Why not have new board members involved in the screening process?" Mr. Indelicato asked. "There's a certain sense of the old guard feeling this is its last shot to influence education policy."

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