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Hard Choices in the Mythical 'Commonwealth of Kudzu'

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Atlanta--Some 200 Southern educators and public-policy experts gathered here last month to play an elaborate game.

For two days, they shed their real-life roles and became legislators in the fictional Commonwealth of Kudzu, which lies, according to the rules of the game, "somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line and north of the Carribbean."

The novice lawmakers sat in budget committees and listened to the eloquent rhetoric and impassioned pleas of advocates for a variety of education programs, each of which was guaranteed by its supporters to be the key to solving the problem of educating disadvantaged youths.

With more than $230 million in new education funding to divvy up, the committee members listened carefully to each new proposal before adjourning to loud and boisterous mark-up sessions.

When the committees were finally forced to close off debate--with a threat that all of the unbudgeted money would be used for football stadiums--it became clear that Kudzu was about to make massive shifts in its education-spending priorities.

One committee had recommended a 6,000 percent increase in funding for dropout-prevention programs, financed by a spending freeze in the areas of higher education, job training, and vocational education.

Another had voted to eliminate vocational education entirely, to make room for increases of 100 percent or more in early-childhood education, remedial and compensatory services, teacher training and recruitment, and dropout prevention.

Similarly, a third committee supported large increases in programs for early-childhood education, drop4out prevention, and teacher training and recruitment--increases to be supported by cuts in vocational and gifted and talented programs.

Fortunately for the would-be committee members, their decisions will not have to be defended before voters and lobbyists. But the lessons they learned are likely to inform the participants' future interactions with legislators in their home states.

The exercise, "Tough Choices for Educational Equity," formed the centerpiece of a continuing conference on "Education in a Changing South: New Policies, Patterns, and Programs." It was the fifth in a series sponsored by the Southern Education Foundation, designed to attract experts in various fields who share a common concern for the welfare of disadvantaged students.

Despite the fictional nature of the exercise, the pattern of consensus that emerged from the 16 separate budget committees has great relevance for Southern states, which are struggling with educational problems as intractable as the wild-growing kudzu vine that covers much of the region. They are seeking to revamp education systems that have historically excluded large numbers of blacks and other disadvantaged students.

A Regional 'Profile'

The profile of the Commonwealth of Kudzu was based on a compilation of statistics from states in the Southeastern region, and it accurately reflects the current status and priorities of those states:

Thirty percent of the commonwealth's 4 million residents are members of minority groups--most are black, but there is a growing Hispanic population.

Its economy is shifting away from an agricultural base, and manufac8turing concerns attracted by its relatively low wage scale have become the largest employment sector.

Officials there are actively courting high-technology industries, but are finding their efforts hampered by the level of educational attainment in their population.

Almost 40 percent of Kudzu's adults never graduated from high school, and 24 percent did not complete the 8th grade. The state also ranks consistently among the bottom 10 states nationally on standardized-test scores.

A reform package enacted in Kudzu two years ago increased graduation requirements and provided money for smaller classes, inservice training, teacher testing, teacher-recognition programs, and increased use of educational technologies.

But a report on the fictional state's progress says that "improvements so far have been uneven," and that "racial differences seem to be on the upswing after years of progress."

The governor and the legislature have agreed to kick off a second phase of Kudzu's education-reform effort with a 10 percent increase in education spending, giving rise to the decisionmaking process that participants here engaged in.

Consensus on Programs

In several areas, a strong consensus emerged from the process, despite the widely varied backgrounds of the participants.

Early-childhood education, for example, was one of the top priorities for each of the committees, with recommended increases ranging from 20 percent to 156 percent.

Despite the fact that Kudzu was supposedly spending $26 million on early-childhood programs this year, only 40 percent of the eligible children were being served, according to "an expert on the state's programs."

During the spending debates, it was clear that participants wanted to expand the program, but some felt that such an expansion could not be accomplished in one year, given the shortage of qualified teachers and facilities.

Nonetheless, said Russell E. Owens, director of the Joint Center for Political Studies' National Policy Institute, the committees wanted to send a signal "that we ought to start at the front end of this pipeline."

Dropout-prevention programs also received strong support from most committees, boosting what had been a $200,000 Kudzu program into one that will have anywhere from $1 million to $12 million at its disposal.

A few committees, bowing to arguments that dropout prevention should be an intrinsic function of every school system and not a separate--and largely token--program, voted against an increase, however.

"Yes, we need comprehensive, schoolwide improvements, but we can't afford to wait for them to work," said Altha Manning, director of dropout prevention for the Florida Department of Education. "Right now, we have a crisis that we need to address immediately."

Programs designed to recruit, train, and retrain teachers also received strong support, with particular concern shown for the dwindling numbers of minorities who choose to go into teaching.

Minority teachers are important not only because they serve as role models for minority students, said Sharon Robinson, director of instruction and professional development for the National Education Association, but also because they help ensure fair treatment for minority students in such areas as discipline and special-education placement.

There was also widespread agreement that certain programs should be de-emphasized.

Vocational Education Hit

Vocational education was the hardest hit, despite arguments by its advocates that such programs serve the needs of a wide variety of students and employers in the state. Two committees voted to eliminate the program altogether, and only a few granted it any increase in funding.

About 25 percent of Kudzu's students, according to the profile, are enrolled in vocational programs. But the state's recent increases in basic academic requirements have made it more difficult for them to fulfill the vocational requirements.

Critics argued that vocational education serves as a dumping ground for students that school systems hold low expectations for, and that marketable employment skills should be integrated throughout the regular school curriculum.

In many of the committees, special education also received less than the 10 percent increase granted to most other programs.

Several participants argued that such pull-out programs are over-utilized and that they consign students to an education of inferior quality.

"I think there's a lot of pretense that we're improving the average achievement of black kids when in fact [special education is used to] pull many of these kids out of the tested pool," said one participant.

Many committees channeled money that would have been used for such programs to remedial and compensatory programs. They reasoned that those efforts more effectively targeted students' problem areas, without subjecting them to the stigma attached to full-time special-education programs.

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