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N.C. Superintendent's Reform Plan Draws Criticism

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A proposal by North Carolina's schools chief for sweeping changes in precollegiate education has touched off a heated debate over what direction the state's drive to re0 form its schools should take--and who should lead the effort.

Superintendent of Public Instruc0 tion Bob Etheridge last month an0 nounced a "20-point plan for reshap ing education" that includes calls for extending the school year to 200 days and providing preschool pro0 grams for all economically disadantaged 4-year-olds. 1

The superintendent also proposed requiring students to attend school until age 18, take algebra in order to graduate from high school, limit the number of hours they work in out0 side jobs each week, and attend or graduate from school in order to re0 ceive a driver's license.

The plan quickly ran into criti0 cism, however, from a variety of quarters. Some officials faulted it as a "top down" approach to school re0 form that conflicts with the state's current emphasis on giving local school districts more flexibility.

Other educators questioned whether the state could afford to un0 dertake the new programs in the su0 perintendent's package at a time when funding for existing education initiatives has been cut. &

Mr. Etheridge estimates that his proposal would cost $366 million for the first two years and $256 million for the next six years. But some critics say the plan would cost much more.Governor 'Disappointed',(

Gov. James G. Martin, who has clashed with Mr. Etheridge on the education budget and other issues, said in a letter to the superintendent that he was disappointed at "the lack of emphasis on accountability reflected in your program.

"Task force after task force, review after review, study after study con0 clude that our public schools need to focus more on improving our chil dren's learning abilities," the Gover0 nor wrote. "These proposals deal ex0 clusively with inputs--not outputs, where real success will be measured.

Mr. Martin also noted that many of Mr. Etheridge's recommendations are already being studied by a host of task forces and commissions that are developing proposals for overhauling education in the state.

"By any standard, there is a grow ing glut of well-intentioned ideas," said John Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. "The question is, can a cen ter be maintained that keeps some co herent vision of school reform?

But Mr. Etheridge said last week he has been "very pleased at the re sponse" his proposal has received.

"I have not heard anyone argue with specific pieces of the plan," he said. "The issue is, all of a sudden we have a superintendent who is mak ing things happen, who is shaking the grates.

"The problem with reform is the only people who benefit are the re formers," the superintendent added. "It's time to implement some things that will help the kids. The public is ready and tired of waiting.

Gene Causby, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, said the superinten dent's plan "caught an awful lot of people by surprise, including me.

Mr. Causby noted that the proposal comes not only as the state has been attempting to decentralize education, through an initiative known as Sen ate Bill 2, but also as the longstandH ing issue of state-level governance of education has been moved to the "front burner.

State education policymaking currently is divided between the state superintendent, who is elected, and the board of education, which is appointed by the governor. Mr. Mar tin is a Republican, while Mr. EtherH idge is a Democrat. In addition, the Democratic-controlled legislature also has played a central role in cre ating education programs.

A task force created by Mr. EtherH idge to make recommendations on improving the state's secondary schools brought up the governance issue, recommending that the Gen eral Assembly appoint a legislative commission to study it. But lawL makers instead directed the task force to make recommendations to the legislature next year.

Meanwhile, the state is experienc ing a severe revenue shortfall. The budget crunch already has forced cuts in the Basic Education Program, which helps poor districts provide the same opportunities for students as do wealthier districts.

"You mix all that up," Mr. Causby said, "and it's a snaky time."

The ferment surrounding educa tion policy has prompted the state's 134 local superintendents to become more active in the debate. Since forming a new division of the North Carolina Association of School Ad ministrators last spring, they have been critical of the department of public instruction.

"We were tired of being reactive and felt it was time to be proactive," said Jerry D. Paschal, superinten dent of the Whiteville schools. "The 20 points presented by the state su perintendent are most probably a pretty good thing to indicate why we got together, because we didn't have anything to do with this." The superintendents are particuL larly frustrated, he noted, by the de partment's response to their requests for waivers under Senate Bill 2.

That measure, passed by the leg islature last year, required school districts to come up with three-year improvement plans, for which they could receive waivers from the state.

"You still have to go back through Raleigh to get your waivers," Mr. Paschal said. "You still have to, quote, play the game."

Mr. Etheridge said his departent did not reject any of the dis tricts' improvement plans, but did make suggestions on raising their standards for student achievement. Under the program, lawmakers lso provided money for districts to create differentiated-pay programs or teachers. The effort reflected an emphasis on accountability that, crit ics say, is absent from Mr. Etheridge's proposal to increase teachers' salaries to the national average.

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