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Organizers Hurdle Roadblocks on Way to 'Summit' on Education

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WASHINGTON--After a three-year wait, plans for a national "summit'' conference on education are beginning to materialize, with organizers saying they hope the event will take place this summer.

But, some observers note, with Congressional education leaders and their staffs now immersed in the lengthy task of reauthorizing virtually every major federal precollegiate-education program, the conference may be delayed until late fall or early winter.

It would not be the first setback for the event, which was originally advocated in 1983. It is intended to bring together teachers, administrators, politicians, and parents to discuss the latest trends in school reform, and, sponsors hope, agree on priorities for future efforts.

Remained in Limbo

Although the Congress endorsed the concept in 1984--overriding the Reagan Administration's opposition--the idea remained in limbo until late last year, when the House and Senate finally agreed to provide $500,000 to pay for the conference.

The 1984 legislation, sponsored by Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachussets, called for a gathering of 200 delegates, selected from nominees submitted by at least 30 major education organizations.

Both the delegates and the groups who nominate them will be selected by the conference's 12-member executive committee, which will also draft an agenda for the event.

Conference organizers are currently focusing on the task of filling out the executive panel. The law requires the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader each to pick two members, the President to pick two, while the nation's governors select the remaining six.

So far, four committee members have been selected. Mr. Williams and Representative William Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania, were chosen last month by House Speaker James Wright, while Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democratic chairman of the National Governors' Association, has appointed himself and Republican Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey.

According to a spokesman for the NGA, Mr. Clinton has yet to select his remaining four candidates. The White House also has not named candidates for the board, but reportedly has already decided on its nominees.

Education Department officials--who in the past have denounced the event as a waste of time and money--have no plans to become more involved in the preparations, said Nancy Harris, deputy undersecretary for intergovernmental affairs.

In Search of Purpose

With the leadership question still largely unsettled, even greater uncertainty surrounds the conference agenda. The problem, some observers say, is that the conference is an event in search of a purpose.

The original reason for the meeting was to discuss the work of the National Commission on Excellence in Education and its 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Former Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, however, pre-empted Mr. Williams and other Congressional supporters by convening his own meeting of 2,500 educators and political leaders in December 1983 to "showcase'' early reform efforts at the state and local levels.

Four years later, some observers wonder if the conference idea has outlived its usefulness. Others, however, disagree, noting that the reforms themselves have spawned new conflicts and controversies.

"It's true that the whole debate has changed,'' said Andy Hartman, a Republican staff member on the House Education and Labor Committee. "People are beginning to ask how we can consolidate the gains we've made and how we can deal with some of the unintended negative consequences of reform. The conference could be a chance to take a look around and see where we go from here.''

Even more than in 1983, another Congressional staff member noted, educators are confronted by the sweeping demands for change, as evidenced by the recent reports from the NGA, the Holmes Group, and the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

"We have to find out how we can take the recommendations of all these reports, put them into a format that will make sense, and come up with some priorities,'' an aide to Mr. Williams said. "And this meeting truly does present that opportunity.''

Some education groups have indicated that they would like to see the conference focus on the federal role in education and on the need to devote more resources to poor and disadvantaged students.

"The summit conference was originally seen as a way of trying to focus attention on specific actions, especially at the federal level,'' said Michael Edwards, chief lobbyist for the National Education Association. "We hope that would still apply.''

With so many education reports already in circulation, conference supporters say they hope the event will focus on developing strategies for action at the state and local levels, rather than on drafting yet another reform document.

"This thing was conceived as a way of creating a national forum of doers, a network of people who could go home and get something accomplished, rather than the sort of effort that results in a report that gets put on a shelf somewhere,'' said Michael Resnick, legislative counsel of the National School Boards Association.

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