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N.C. Board Sues To Block the Use Of 'Channel One'

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The North Carolina Board of Education last week touched off a potentially divisive battle over state control of local school policies by suing a district for its decision to sign up for Whittle Communications' "Channel One" televised news program.

The board also voided contracts between Whittle and some 90 schools in approximately 30 other districts in the state that had agreed to participate in the controversial advertiser-supported program for students.

The state's prohibition of Channel One has angered some local superintendents, who contend that its action runs counter to the spirit of a 1989 reform law intended to give districts more freedom from state regulation.

"We certainly think the issue is much greater than just Channel One," said Ronald B. Singletary, superintendent of the Thomasville school district, which was sued for accepting the program a week after the state board passed an emergency rule barring any additional districts from doing so.

The board's decision to challenge all of Whittle's contracts in the state represented a marked escalation of its campaign against the program.

Board members acted after concluding that the participating districts were illegally and unconstitutionally delegating "the authority for selecting the curriculum for North Carolina public schools to an outside commercial corporation," said Glenn Keever, a spokesman for the panel.

"The board feels it is not proper for school systems to use the compulsory-attendance laws of North Carolina and then require students to watch a commercially sponsored news program," Mr. Keever added.

Channel One is a 12-minute daily program, including 2 minutes of commercials, designed to be shown in secondary-school classes. Whittle has signed up more than 2,500 schools nationwide for the program, which is to debut March 5 in about 400 schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1990.)

Two other states, New York and California, took action last year to bar their schools from signing up for Channel One. Those moves occurred before Whittle had attempted to sell the idea to local school districts.

Education officials in many other states have advised districts against participation, but have left the decision to local officials.

In North Carolina, however, the state board did not consider Channel One until December--well after many schools in the state had signed contracts for the program.

On Feb. 1, the board passed an emergency measure designed to prevent any more schools from signing contracts with Whittle.

The schools that had already signed up could show the program for three years, the board said, but could not renew their contracts and could not count the time spent on Channel One as part of the state-mandated 5-hour minimum school day.

By adopting a temporary rule, state officials intended for the policy to take effect immediately.

On Feb. 8, the Thomasville school board voted to sign a contract with Whittle. State officials, who perceived the move as a direct challenge to their authority to set regulations, quickly scheduled a special meeting of the state board.

But the district did not intend to openly defy the state, according to Mr. Singletary.

"We had reason to believe the4state had not followed adopted procedures for enacting emergency action--therefore we were not bound by it,'' he said.

Whittle and the Thomasville district successfully moved to have an administrative-law judge review the board's action to determine if it was properly made effective immediately. The review is not expected to take place for another month, however.

Another state panel, the Administrative Rules Review Commission, maintained that the state board had no statutory authority to ban the program. Superintendent of Public Instruction Bob Etheridge said the commission's views had "no impact" on the state board.

The board's suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, seeks to have the contract between Whittle and the Thomasville district voided as "contrary to public policy, unlawful, unconstitutional, and in violation of the rules of the state board."

It also seeks permanently to enjoin Whittle from contracting with any local school board in the state. A judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring implementation of the Thomasville contract and has scheduled a hearing this week in the case. Both the district and Whittle say they are studying the suit.

Local school officials expressed dismay at the state board's strong stance on the issue, arguing that it was part of a growing encroachment on local control of schools.

"I can't remember any time when a state board has overruled a contract made by a local board," said Jerry Paschal, superintendent of the Whiteville school district, which has a contract with Whittle. "It has become apparent the question isn't Channel One, it is a question of local autonomy."

Many superintendents see irony in the fact that the debate is occurring so soon after approval of a law aimed at relaxing state rules in return for greater accountability by districts. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

The measure, known as Senate Bill 2, was passed to give schools the opportunity to break free of bureaucratic constraints. Under the law, the state board may waive regulations on class size, teacher certification, use of state-adopted textbooks, and mandates for state funding.

"Senate Bill 2 was landmark legislation," said Jan Crotts, legislative liaison for the North Carolina School Boards Association. "We don't want anything to discourage local boards from pursuing innovative ideas and from feeling they have support at the state board. We think the use of Channel One by some districts is an innovative idea."

The board's action to block Channel One is "insulting" to local officials, she added. "They've put shackles on local school boards," she said.

State officials contend the Channel One dispute has nothing to do with the deregulatory legislation or the issue of greater local autonomy.

"That's an absolute camouflage, because this has nothing to do with Senate Bill 2," said Mr. Keever, the state board's spokesman. "If you look at the law, it requires the state board to do all sorts of things in a regulatory fashion."

"This is, in effect, a dispute over whether the state board of education has the constitutional authority to adopt regulations for the schools of North Carolina," he added.

All local superintendents, meanwhile, were scheduled to meet this week to discuss the situation.

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