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Bush Called On To Free Funding For Experiments

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President Bush and the Congress should free selected school districts from rules governing federal aid for disadvantaged youngsters so they can use the funds in innovative ways, a national policy-analysis group proposes in a new blueprint for advancing school reform.

In exchange, the districts would be expected to set and meet performance standards for poor and minority students that far exceed current expectations.

The National Center on Education and the Economy, which developed the plan, compares the wave of innovation that could result from such an initiative to the sweeping experimentation in welfare reform that states engaged in prior to the passage of new federal welfare legislation last year.

The lessons learned from those experiments formed the basis for the current federal welfare policy, the center suggests, saying, "We believe something similar is called for in this case."

The proposal is contained in a report by the center on the federal role in education. It is the first policy document to be generated by the new organization since it was formed a year ago by Marc S. Tucker, former director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

The report was scheduled to be released this week by the center's 25-member board of directors, which includes John Sculley, president and chief executive officer of Apple Computer Inc.; former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina; Hillary R. Clinton, wife of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas; and David Rockefeller Jr., vice chairman of Rockefeller Family & Associates Inc.

According to the board's report, "To Secure Our Future: The Federal Role in Education," the challenge facing the United States "is to provide an elite education for everyone."

"The top fifth must be raised so that it is the equal in performance of any country's top fifth," the report states. "At the same time, the performance of the bottom fifth must be pushed far above where it is now."

To do so, the report calls on President Bush to set broad national goals in education and job training that would ensure that America meets or exceeds the performance of its international competitors by the year 2000. The 37-page document is adapted from a letter sent to Mr. Bush shortly before his inauguration.

It lays out a number of proposals intended to help produce a "world-class system for education and training." These include recommendations to expand early-childhood education, improve the mathematics and science curriculum, apply new information technology within the schools, and combat adult illiteracy.

But the centerpiece of the document's policy statement is its proposal for three broad experiments--referred to as "design initiatives"--that would significantly alter the relationship of federal and state government to local school districts.

According to the report, the current structure of many federal programs "has become a part of the problem rather than of the solution."

"Federal programs for the disadvantaged are typically structured in ways that do not reward the improvement of student progress," the report argues. "In fact, the incentives are perverse. Money is withdrawn if success is achieved."

In programs ranging from bilingual education to special education, it says, "separate bureaucracies control and deliver separate programs that typically carve kids into separate pieces and make it difficult to build initiatives that work for the student."

To remedy that fragmentation, the report proposes a series of experiments that would free at least 10 to 15 school districts around the country from many of the existing programmatic constraints in order to design "high-performance schools."

These "design initiatives" would operate primarily in central cities and rural communities where there is a high concentration of poverty. And they would focus on restructuring the schools, improving the school-to-work transition, and integrating social services for children.

Within each district, educators would be invited to propose ambitious goals for students that they considered attainable if existing rules and regulations were lifted.

If the state and the federal govern4ment agreed to those standards, then educators at the local level could pool available funds as they wished and design programs they thought would be most effective.

To create high-performance schools, the report states, districts could combine funds provided by Chapter 1 remedial education, special education, bilingual education, the magnet-schools program, and related state and federal initiatives.

To improve the transition from school to work, it says, districts could pool resources from certain provisions of the Job Training Partnership Act, the Vocational Education Act, the Adult Basic Education Act, and other programs focused on dropout prevention at the state and federal levels.

And to integrate social services for children, the report suggests, local officials could combine funding streams that now flow separately to education, welfare, social-services, health, juvenile-justice, and child-protection agencies.

In each case, the participating community would receive funding equal to its normal allocation under existing rules and regulations. In addition, it would receive a bonus of approximately 5 to 10 percent to encourage risk-taking and innovation.

The report cautions that its design initiatives are not a call to "deregulate" the system or to revive the earlier notion of federal block grants to states.

Rather, their purpose is to radically change the way the system is regulated, it says, by "putting the emphasis squarely on performance."

Districts could continue to pool resources and ignore prevailing regulations only if they met the standards they had set, the report notes.

If they did not make "steady and substantial progress" toward their predetermined goals, then all prior rules and regulations would go back into effect.

According to the report, its proposals could be achieved without any changes in existing federal programs. It urges that the Congress simply grant a general waiver authority to Cabinet secretaries to be used under certain conditions.

Federal agencies could then enter into negotiations with selected cities and counties, following a competition among interested states and school districts.

"[W]e would not begin by changing the federal programs that are now in place," the report asserts. "What we have in mind is a very large experiment that would provide the information needed for a general redrafting of the basic federal programs later."

In an interview last week, Mr. Tucker, president of the national center, speculated that the experiments could last up to five years, after which changes in federal legislation might be forthcoming.

To make such experiments work, the report adds, the federal government would need to invest more money in statistical and educational research. And it would have to make funds available to states to help them determine new student outcomes, redesign teacher-education programs, and take other steps needed to successfully restructure schools.

The report also makes recommendations in a number of other areas.

It suggests, for example, that the President declare a goal of matching the mathematics and science performance of students in all other countries by a certain date, and then create a Cabinet-level council to devise a national strategy for doing so.

In particular, it advocates the creation of new science, mathematics, and technology curricula--under a federal initiative like that following the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1958.

It also urges high-technology businesses and the military to apply recent advances in information technologies to education.

For example, the report suggests, the President could engage the talents of these industries in the construction of a "national communications network," which would be used by students of all ages to exchange television and computer-based instruction and information.

The report also urges the federal government to provide more funding for child care and other programs that ensure that youngsters arrive at school healthy and ready to learn. And it advocates strengthening programs that combat adult illiteracy and improve training for the workforce.

The center does not put a price tag on any of its proposals. But Mr. Tucker maintained that the "design initiatives," in particular, would not require a great deal of money to implement.

The center's report is aimed primarily at President Bush, the Congress, and state policymakers.

Mr. Sculley, chairman of the ncee board, met with Mr. Bush shortly before he took office to discuss the appropriate federal role in education. The White House has approached another member of the center's board, David Rockefeller Jr., about meeting with the President in the near future.

In addition, Mr. Tucker said, the center is trying to arrange meetings with Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, and with members of Congress and their aides.

The center's activities are currently underwritten by some $1.6 million in funding, including grants from the State of New York, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Rockefeller Brothers Trust, and the Eastman-Kodak Foundation.

Its next national project will examine the skills needed by the American workforce, with a particular emphasis on how to prepare students who go directly from high school into the job market.

The center is also focusing on ways to develop better measurement and accountability systems within education.

Unlike its predecessor, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, the new national center is also devoting a portion of its time to carrying out its policy recommendations within a local setting: the city of Rochester, N.Y., where it is based.

Copies of "To Secure Our Future: The Federal Role in Education," can be purchased for $7.50 each from the National Center on Education and the Economy, 39 State St., Suite 500, Rochester, N.Y. 14614. All orders must be prepaid by check or accompanied by a purchase order.

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