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South Carolina Considering 'Flexibility' for High-Scoring Schools

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South Carolina's governor and key lawmakers are advancing proposals that would release schools with a record of superior academic achievement from compliance with numerous state regulations.

Experts say the concept appears to be one of the most far-reaching attempts yet made by a state to encourage local restructuring of schools, both in terms of the number of schools involved and in the sweep of state rules that would be lifted.

In his State of the State Address last month, Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. unveiled the broad outlines of a plan to exempt nearly one-fourth of South Carolina's 1,100 schools from virtually all state regulations.

Schools would gain the special "flexibility" status, Mr. Campbell's aides said, if their students earned high marks on the state's standardized tests, as compared with other schools whose students have a similar socioeconomic profile. According to a briefing paper, schools would lose the special treatment only if their students' scores "decline significantly."

A slightly modified proposal introduced in the Senate last week would make it more difficult for schools to maintain the special designation. According to the bill, these schools would be exempt from regulations "including, but not limited to, regulations on class scheduling, class structure, and staffing."

Senate staff members estimate that 291 schools would qualify for exemptions under that bill. A similar proposal was expected to be introduced in the legislature's lower chamber this week.

Neither the Governor's nor the Senate's plan specifies whether schools would have to apply for exemptions, or would be granted waivers automatically.

Although a handful of states have either implemented or are planning pilot school-restructuring programs, observers say Mr. Campbell's initiative seems to be the most wide-ranging of such proposals to date.

"What's different about South Carolina in this respect is the scale of the effort," said Michael Cohen, director of the education program for the National Governor's Association.

Mr. Cohen said the proposal marks "a big step" in the direction of the "trade-off" the nation's governors offered schools during their annual meeting in 1986: Greater flexibility in return for greater accountability.

"There is no need to monitor and regulate schools that are doing a good job anyway," said Mary Willis, an aide to the Governor Campbell who helped draft the proposal. "You don't go to the doctor once a week when you are not feeling bad."

Test-Score Gains

Under both the Governor's proposal and the Senate bill, schools would be granted greater flexibility if their gains on two sets of standardized tests placed them in approximately the top quarter of schools with similar socioeconomic characteristics. Under an existing program, the state rewards schools that meet this standard with additional per-pupil aid.

Under the Governor's proposal, schools would be exempted from compliance with regulations if they achieved test-score gains in the previous year. The Senate bill, however, would require them to demonstrate such gains in two of the prior three years.

The two proposals also differ on requirements for maintaining deregulated status. While the Governor's plan would continue to grant the status to schools that hold their own, the Senate measure would require them to demonstrate improvement at least once during the preceding two years.

Reforms Envisioned

Under the Governor's proposal, schools that earn the special status would be allowed to conduct such reform experiments as:

Replacing 55-minute class periods with two-hour blocks of time several times a week to allow for more in-depth treatment of a subject.

Shifting staffing patterns to create larger classes for lectures and smaller seminars for discussion groups.

Grouping students according to their skills and knowledge, rather than age.

The Senate bill does not detail what sorts of reforms would be permitted. It would require the state board of education, in consultation with a special committee that oversees the implementation of South Carolina's Education Improvement Act and a joint business-education subcommittee, to develop guidelines for the program.

According to Ms. Willis, the Governor will ask the legislature to appropriate approximately $50 per student for each school receiving the special designation to allow them to obtain technical assistance to carry out their programs.

The Senate bill would allow all schools, regardless of their test scores, to compete for planning grants of up to $5,000, and for implementation grants of up to $30,000 a year for three years.

Officials in the state education de4partment have greeted the proposals with caution.

"I don't think there would be ready agreement among all partners in the educational process about what regulations should be waived," said Michael M. Turner, director of the office of school-district accreditation and assessment.

An Accreditation Plan

Last year, the department proposed a performance-based accreditation plan that would have waived regulations for high-achieving schools. Officials withdrew the proposal after lawmakers voiced concern that the system would be too costly to implement.

Department officials said that they were revising the accreditation plan and planned to present it again.

"Obviously, the concept is there that we are working towards," said Legrand A. Rouse 2nd, the department's special assistant for legal and legislative affairs, of the proposed legislation. "But there may be some things expressed in this bill that may need further modification."

Accepting the 'Challenge'

Other members of the education and business communities, however, voiced stronger support for the proposals.

"If you have principals and teachers in a school, and they have pressing needs, they should have the freedom" to take corrective action, said Terry Peterson, executive director of the Joint Business-Education Subcommittee, one of the groups that would develop local program guidelines under the Senate bill.

Norman Mullins, associate superintendent for educational development in the Greenville school district, noted that districts, as well as schools, would have to adapt to the demands posed by greater flexibility.

"It's going to be very difficult, not only for the school, which is going to have to figure out what it needs and what its community needs, but also for [districts], because we are going to have to shift our focus to look at outcomes," he said. "It's going to be difficult because nobody knows how to do it, but we accept that challenge."

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