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State-Board Members Contemplate 'Activism'

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Chicago--On a recent blustery autumn day, members of several state boards of education sat around a table at the Palmer House Hotel here discussing a report that called for a total restructuring of early-childhood-education programs.

The report, issued that morning at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Boards of Education, set an ambitious agenda for the state education panels, saying they would bear prime responsibility for building coalitions among existing early-childhood programs, community agencies, and local school officials. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1988.)

"I think we have the political clout to do it," Sally Southard, a member of the Ohio Board of Education, said optimistically.

None of the other board members at the table--representing Hawaii, Mississippi, Alaska, and Washington State--countered her statement. On the other hand, all remained silent.

The moment captured the doubtful feeling that many state-board members said they harbored about their ability to follow up on that report and two others--on curriculum and accountability--issued by nasbe at the meeting. The event marked the first time the organization had issued three policy statements on such cutting-edge issues at the same time.

Board members here acknowledged that state policy development during this decade's school-reform movement had been dominated largely by governors, legislatures, and national and local blue-ribbon panels, with state boards "out of the loop" for the most part.

Gene Wilhoit, nasbe's executive director, was among those expressing the hope that this year's meeting would mark the beginning of a new era of state-board activism.

"We admit that we were probably caught unaware a few years ago with the first round" of reforms, he said.

"But we've taken a good, honest look at ourselves, and I have to say, we can improve," he added.

"We know we have the primary responsibility and important roles in a lot of these areas," he continued. "We need to take a stand, and that's what we're starting to do."

Nasbe's self-analysis began this year when Richard Owens of the Georgia Board of Education became the group's president. One of his first acts was to appoint the commit8tees of state-board members that developed the policy statements issued at the Chicago meeting.

Nasbe's president-elect, Roseann Bentley of Missouri, has said she plans to continue on the course set by Mr. Owens. Major reports being prepared s meeting will address such topics as schools' role in providing health services, parental and community involvement, and state funding formulas.

The group and the National Conference of State Legislatures will co-sponsor a conference on the latter topic next April at the Wingspread center in Racine, Wis.

According to Mr. Wilhoit, this and next year's policy statements will help provide the groundwork for a school "restructuring" model that nasbe will develop. A 15- to 20-member task force of state-board members will be convened in coming months to begin work on the project, he said.

"It is a major strategic change for our organization," Mr. Wilhoit explained. "Instead of making recommendations just for nasbe, we are now making recommendations for state boards to take action on."

The association will also be looking for ways to support the efforts of members in their own states.

For example, nasbe has been awarded a $375,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to help its members pilot-test the recommendations of its early-childhood-development report in several states.

Nasbe's policy statement on school accountability recommends that state boards establish a clear education vision for local boards.

Districts demonstrating improvement on a wide range of measures, such as course offerings, dropout rates, and school climate, should be rewarded with more decisionmaking authority, grants, and exemption from certain regulations, the report states.

Those that fail to improve after receiving state technical assistance, it continues, should be subject to sanctions including the witholding of state funds and more intense monitoring.

In extreme cases, the report suggests that state boards "take more significant action," such as assuming direct control of a local district, as New Jersey officials are attempting to do in the case of Jersey City.

The report notes that "technical assistance is more positive than sanctions, and that public disclosure of district inadequacies is usually a sufficient threat."

The bottom line in developing an accountability system, the report states, is "whether students can become active citizens, productive employees, or successful students of further education."

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