Groups Fighting Outcomes Plan in Wash. at Odds
Strategic and ideological differences have splintered the network of grassroots groups opposing Washington State's performance-based school reforms.
The development is of national significance, observers say, because it signals the mounting tension within activist organizations that have formed in recent months to oppose state school-reform efforts.
While the clash does not mean smooth sailing for the program passed by Washington lawmakers this year, it is an important moment for a growing national movement that is struggling for credibility with both policymakers and the public.
In Washington, friction has developed between organizations with a strongly conservative religious orientation and parents' groups that consider themselves more moderate and open to change, according to participants.
"It's like we are fighting two battles, one against the state and one against the far right,'' said Kay Fox, the director of the Public Education Research Council, a Seattle-based group. "It is absolutely crazy.''
Tension within the Washington opposition grew to the point that leaders called in a mediator to lead discussions within the group.
The groups are united by their opposition to outcomes-based education, a reform scheme meant to transform the schools by shifting their focus from regulations and course time to achievement and higher standards. (See Education Week, March 17, 1993.)
Efforts by Pennsylvania officials to establish an outcomes-based system stirred intense opposition from a vocal group of parents over the last two years. The opposition groups' success in modifying the proposal has encouraged similar rebellions in other states.
In response, many state and national education groups have characterized the opponents as members of "the religious right'' or extreme conservatives.
But observers of the Washington situation argue that what is happening in that state shows that the opposition is not so easily stereotyped and, in many ways, is grappling for its identity and voice.
A Diverse Coalition
In Pennsylvania, opponents of outcomes-based education included pro-family groups, taxpayer-watchdog organizations, conservative parents, and longtime critics of the state education department. In addition, the opposition also included strong representation from Citizens for Excellence in Education, a California-based group led by Christian evangelicals interested in backing local school board candidates.
In Washington and elsewhere, opponents of outcomes-based education programs are composed of similar local groups, as well as prominent national conservative organizations such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
As in Washington, strong differences have developed between the citizens' groups and religious organizations, as well as between the local groups and those pushing a national agenda.
"Some of these groups didn't know each other before this began, and all of a sudden they get gung-ho and feel like they are behind the eight ball and jump into action without communicating,'' said Jeff Kemp, the executive director of the Washington Family Council and a leader of the "peace meeting'' among the opponents.
Divisions over strategy, tactics, and personalities have been somewhat ironed out, he said, but they are likely to flare up again.
"We are all typically lumped in a box called the religious right, but there is not a common collusion or strategizing that occurs among these groups,'' explained Paul Hetrick, the vice president of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family. "We all decide for ourselves how to deal with a given issue or situation.''
"The problem is that there are people who want to talk about this, and there are people who want to work it out, but we all get put together,'' Ms. Fox said.
Ms. Fox said she opposes the state's move toward year-round schools and more subjective assessments. But she applauds efforts to use more group projects and applied learning.
"I believe there is room for compromise, but the first thing they say when I start to talk is that she is anti-schools. Next, they say you must be part of the far right,'' she explained. "But my biggest problem is the far right.''
The tensions within the anti-O.B.E. camp have been exacerbated by a heavy barrage of criticism from state officials, reform advocates, and civil-liberties groups, which have cast doubt on the groups' motives and credibility. Frustrated by being portrayed as members of a monolithic movement, some critics of outcomes-based reforms have moved to distance themselves from their more conservative allies.
"It has been pretty vicious, and we have seen people who fit the hysterical C.E.E. scenario,'' said Robin Bernhoft, a research analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative group opposing the state reforms. "I had always thought that the religious right was a tag created by the media, but I think it is really legitimate.''
"It is very tempting to paint us all with the same brush,'' he continued, "but there is a whole separate level of irrational dogmatism here.''
"If people are going around looking out for pumpkins on Halloween, it is hard to have a serious debate about what's going on,'' Mr. Bernhoft said.
Much of the infighting has gone unnoticed by top state officials, who still see the opposing forces as a formidable challenge. Lawmakers in April passed a law setting a reform strategy, but policymakers have only begun considering the new standards for reading, mathematics, writing, and communications. (See Education Week, May 5, 1993.)
'Who Is Against Setting Goals?'
Leaders of the C.E.E., meanwhile, say the charges of being unbending and overzealous are unfair but not unexpected.
"C.E.E. parents have been totally mischaracterized, disenfranchised, and beaten down,'' said Bob Simonds, the founder of the group.
"We're against the abuses that are written into some state plans, but we're not against outcomes,'' Mr. Simonds said. "Who is against setting outcomes and goals and working toward them?''
"We're not a militant group,'' added Minda Caldwell, a language teacher at an Olympia high school and a regional director of the C.E.E.
"Sometimes individuals do their own thing as they see what's happening, but you can't avoid that,'' Ms. Caldwell observed. "We're trying to build bridges.''