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N.Y. Plan: Parents May Leave Failing Schools

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Parents in New York State whose children attend schools deemed "educationally unsound" under new state standards would be allowed to transfer to other schools in their district at state expense, under a plan proposed by Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol.

According to state education officials, Mr. Sobol's recommendation to the New York Board of Regents last month marked the first time a state school chief has suggested using the concept of "parental choice" to punish low-performing schools.

The commissioner's plan, which is still in draft form, would also reward above-average schools by freeing them from having to comply with many state regulations.

Although the Board of Regents has unusually broad authority governing both public and private schools, the commissioner's accountability plan pertains only to public schools. A spokesman for Mr. Sobol said he was developing separate proposals for the regulation of private schools.

The new plan is a direct response to nearly a year of criticism that "Albany has been asleep while New York City schools go to pot," according to a spokesman for Mr. Sobol.

The commissioner also said he would issue a series of recommendations directed at the city's schools next month. They will include a significant increase in general state aid; incentive aid for new programs; and an increase in the number of state-funded staff positions in the district.

A spokesman for the New York City schools said officials were re4serving comment on the plan until more details are offered by the commissioner.

Some state-board members have welcomed Mr. Sobol's proposal. It represents "what we've all been waiting for," said one.

But the plan has been greeted with skepticism among union officials and legislators, who say it raises troubling questions.

A 'Bill of Rights'

Mr. Sobol presented the accountability plan to the board along with another controversial proposal--a "Bill of Rights" for students.

The draft document asserts that schoolchildren should be guaranteed such rights as free, sound, basic education; effective schools and educational programs; and clean, safe, well-repaired school buildings. (See box, page 14.)

Although members of the state board called the proposal a positive step, a spokesman for local school boards questioned whether its adoption would expose boards to lawsuits.

"These rights are all wonderful things," said Louis Grumet, president of the New York State School Boards Association. "But does this mean that students will have the right to sue their teachers for educational malpractice?"

According to Lionel Meno, the newly appointed deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education and a principal architect of the proposal, the final language of the bill will include a "disclaimer" that will protect the state and local boards from legal attack.

Current Plan Lacking

Mr. Sobol said the bill of rights and accountability proposals acknowledge the state's responsibility to improve "educational outcomes."

After nearly a year of evaluation, Mr. Sobol said, he concluded that the current accountability system was ineffective.

"We could identify schools in need, and perhaps motivate and/or embarrass the teachers and principals who worked in them; but we could neither call them fully to account nor provide the resources," his report to the board said.

According to a spokesman for the commissioner, schools are now assessed annually on the basis of a "Comprehensive Assessment Report."

Schools that fail to meet certain minimum standards are not "registered" and must develop an improvement plan with state officials. The spokesman said it is not uncommon for some schools to develop such plans year after year.

Under Mr. Sobol's proposal, the state would set "standards of excellence" that all schools could aspire to, as well as minimum standards that could trigger state intervention.

Teams of state officials, teachers, and supervisors would evaluate all schools at least once every five years. They would consider such elements as test scores, dropout rates, attendance data, job- and college-placement rates, and the physical condition of school buildings.

If a school met the minimum standards, it would be registered and its administrators would be offered more "discretion" in their use of school resources, according to the report.

Schools incapable of meeting those standards would face a series of ''strict measures," the report states.

First, the state would monitor the school for up to two years. If improvements were not made during that period, the state could declare the school "an unsound educational environment" and parents would be allowed to transfer their children to other schools in the district at state expense.

According to Mr. Meno, a state intervention plan cannot succeed if it Continued on Page 14

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does not have "a bottom line."

"It simply is not fair that, if a child lives in a certain neighborhood, they are required, according to compulsory-education laws, to attend a school that is not meeting their needs," he said.

'Bottom Line'

The deputy commissioner said that Mr. Sobol does not intend to force failing schools to close. But, under the proposed plan, if a sufficient number of parents exercise their right to move their children to another school, the unregistered school could be forced to close due to declining enrollment.

Mr. Meno said the proposals could be implemented by the state board without lawmakers' approval. But some legislators last week took issue with that position.

Jocelyn Dax, education adviser to the Assembly's education committee, said the legislature would take a close look at the proposal.

"We would be concerned about implementing any kind of voucher system," she said. "That strikes a red flag for us."

James Ruhl, an associate program secretary for the state Senate, added that even if the board did have the power to authorize the changes, funding would still have to be approved by the legislature.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on the proposal in either December or January.

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