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S.C. Study Tracks Law Allowing Deregulation of Schools

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About two-thirds of the South Carolina schools that have been released from virtually all state regulations under a 1989 law have made positive use of their new freedom, a recent survey shows.

But about one-half of the changes the schools have adopted could have taken place even without deregulation, concluded the study, which was presented to the state board of education last month.

Under the law, schools with a history of superior academic achievement have been released automatically from numerous state regulations governing staffing, class scheduling, and class structure. A school can maintain this status if its performance continues to be superior.

Experts have described the program as one of the most ambitious school-restructuring efforts yet attempted by a state, both in the number of schools affected and the variety of rules that were relaxed. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1989.)

Since the program began last year, 164 of the state's approximately 1,000 schools have been deregulated. Among other exemptions, principals in such schools no longer have to be certified as such by the state, and teachers, with the exception of special-education instructors, do not have to be certified in the subject areas in which they teach.

The study, which was completed by Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University, found that most of the 70 principals who responded to a survey said their schools were undertaking at least one activity as a result of their special status.

The activities included adding subjects or special programs to schools' academic offerings, restructuring curricula, restructuring the use of teachers' time, and changing teachers' responsibilities.

"These are the kinds of schools that have flourished under the rules," Ms. Fuhrman said. "But there was a lot of change, a lot activities, which I see directly related to deregulation."

The principals said that about half of their new activities could have been accomplished without the deregulated status. The other activities, they said, would have been blocked by state regulations that mandate time requirements for specific subjects or by rules on the certification of school personnel and required paperwork.

Although deregulation was supposed to reduce schools' paperwork and reporting burdens, 43 percent of the principals said the program had not yet had this effect. "Basically, they are still doing it because somebody may want it someday," Ms. Fuhrman said.

She added that some schools were cautious about making changes, especially far-reaching ones, because of fears that their accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools could be threatened.

The survey found that large schools were more likely than small ones to undertake new activities. But small schools, the survey found, were more willing than larger schools to adopt ambitious changes.

Schools that took advantage of deregulation generally found the district administration to be more supportive of proposed changes than the local school board was, the survey found.

Schools that did not undertake any activities often cited as a barrier the lack of special funding for the program, as well as time constraints.

For the educators who have taken advantage of the special status, deregulation has been a boon.

Shirley Henderson, principal of the Joseph Keels Elementary School in Columbia, said the program had allowed teachers at her school to decide how they wanted to divide the day between the various subjects.

Class bells no longer mark the end of a class period, she said, and teachers can now devote more time to science or mathematics projects.

"The teacher gets a lot more flexibility," Ms. Henderson said. "She doesn't have to worry about how many minutes she spends on a particular subject."

The program has also cut down on the amount of paperwork that most teachers have to complete, the principal said. However, she added, the state still asks the school to fill out an annual form to estimate how much time is spent on each subject.

The main difference, Ms. Henderson said, has been intangible. "One of the biggest changes has been a sense of pride," she said.

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