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State Lawmakers Focus on Accountability

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RENO, NEV.--The word "accountability'' was on the minds and lips of many of the 1,500 state lawmakers who gathered here last week for the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Discussions involving whether and how to hold schools accountable for their performance arose at nearly every education-related session of the legislators' four-day gathering.

The debate on accountability suggested a new, more questioning mood among lawmakers after a period of enthusiastic spending on schools. The changing climate was also hinted at in a new NCSL survey revealing that state-aid increases for education this year were not as great as in the past.

The survey reflects, said the organization, "the possibility that increasing spending for education may not be as high a priority as previously.'' State general-fund budgets on average increased by 7 percent this year, while education funding averaged a 7.4 percent rise.

The survey, which found that 13 states increased taxes and 14 reduced taxes, reported that funding for corrections was the fastest-growing budget area, with an average 10 percent increase.

Varied Strategies

About half the states already have or are considering some type of school-accountability program, said Chris Pipho, director of the Education Commission of the States' information clearinghouse. "The interest in accountability is on the increase,'' he said.

But there was much talk here about the best tactics for states to adopt. "I won't say we're grasping at straws,'' said state Representative Paul Schauer of Colorado, chairman of the NCSL's task force on education, "but for many years it was a six-word sentence from educators: 'Send more money, no strings attached.' People are beginning to ask if the dollars are being used to achieve what needs to be achieved.''

A number of organizations--including the N.C.S.L., the National Governors' Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the U.S. Education Department's state accountabilty work group--have released, or soon will, recommendations that address the accountability issue.

Among the legislative strategies being discussed and experimented with in some states are: setting student performance goals, linking student performance to funding formulas, offering financial rewards and imposing sanctions, waiving state regulations for high-achieving schools, publicizing comparative student performance, providing technical assistance for improvement, and taking over poorly performing school districts.

State Representative Linn Tytler, a Republican from New Mexico, said legislators need to tell districts that they expect an accounting of what the dollars states invested in school reform have produced in higher student performance and lower dropout rates, among other improvements.

"You get back what you ask for, and unless you set those accountability standards how can you measure the degree of success,'' said Ms. Tytler. A House education-committee member, she said she planned to introduce an incentive-based accountability package during the next session.

Ms. Tytler said she expected opposition to the proposal because it would involve comparing districts.

Caution, Fairness Advised

But James Ogelsby, president-elect of the National School Boards Association, pleaded with lawmakers not to rush to enact even more education mandates. Instead, he argued, they should focus their energies on "enabling legislation'' and lifting restrictions to allow districts the flexibilty to restructure as needed.

Terry K. Peterson, chairman of the federal department's accountability work group, warned that school officials will resist accountability measures if they view them as simplistic. "Educators have to feel the accountabilty system is fair,'' he said.

The work group's draft report proposes that states enact a broad range of rewards and incentives, and use state intervention only after providing technical assistance. It also will recommend the establishment of blue-ribbon panels to oversee school systems and to make recommended adjustments.

The draft report, and a host of conference speakers, cautioned against using students' scores on standardized tests as performance measurements for accountability.

Lawmakers were repeatedly told that new performance measures based on higher-order thinking skills were needed. And they were warned that the current "delivery system'' for education is inadequate to meet the needs of contemporary students and that new tactics are needed.

Freedoms in Accountability?

Ironically, according to Mr. Pipho, the net result of the accountability movement may be more flexibility for schools.

"In the 1988 sessions, there was great interest in academic bankruptcy,'' he said. "But in some of the states where academic-bankruptcy laws are being undertaken, they are looking at relaxing the rules.''

"In other words, if you are doing a very poor job there ought to be some penalties,'' he added. "But if you're doing a very good job, should we not relax the rules to give you a bit more freedom? It's an important concept coming under restructuring of schools and incentive programs of various kinds.''

Michael Cohen, associate director of the NGA, said the use of state waivers "is a very different accountability tool that is just beginning to take hold.''

State Representative Penny Williams of Oklahoma, a House education-committee member, said the best way to promote accountability and restructuring is to provide financial incentives to districts that are willing to innovate.

The notion expressed at the NCSL gathering that the education system requires a total overhaul is not likely, she predicted, to be readily accepted in legislatures comfortable with the existing structure.

"Change is something we react to, not promote,'' Ms. Williams said.

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