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In Colo. District, Slate Seeks To Kill Pioneering Testing Program

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In Littleton, Colo., where educators have pioneered new performance assessments and standards for high school graduation, a slate of three candidates is running to take control of the school board and return to what the candidates call "traditional education.''

The race is one of the most significant of the local election contests set for Nov. 2, when voters across the country will pick school board members, vote on bond issues, and decide referendum questions on education-related issues.

In Nashua, N.H., members of the local teachers' union are fighting a referendum question that would give the city council final authority over all financial matters in collective-bargaining contracts negotiated by the school board.

And in Cincinnati, the school district is asking voters to approve a $348 million bond issue to help repair aging and overcrowded schools and install up-to-date technology.

At Odds Over O.B.E.

In Littleton, the efforts by the district to measure students' learning in new ways, and to encourage students to focus on problem-solving rather than memorization, have sparked a backlash. (See Education Week, April 22, 1992.)

The slate of three challengers has labeled the district's approach "outcomes-based education,'' which they contend devalues learning specific bodies of worthwhile knowledge. They also are critical of the new performance assessments, arguing that they are not valid enough to use for such high-stakes purposes as determining which students should graduate from high school.

Bill Cisney, a self-employed retailer running as part of the slate, said the candidates are advocating that students receive a "broad background of knowledge in traditional academic subject areas.''

"We have made it very clear,'' he said, "that that does not mean wearing uniforms, militaristic discipline, joyless classes, and all drill-and-rote'' instruction.

In addition to Mr. Cisney's slate, the race has attracted six other candidates. Three seats on the five-member board are at stake, two of which are being defended by incumbents.

The incumbents and two newcomers have formed a coalition to support the district's reforms. They have raised about $30,000 to counter the anti-O.B.E. slate's criticisms and have received endorsements from the Littleton Education Association and the local administrators' group.

Jerre Hause, a businessman who is part of the coalition defending the district's reforms, said it is inaccurate to call those efforts outcomes-based education.

"What we're doing is trying to measure student learning in new ways,'' he said. "We're serious enough to make that part of the graduation requirement at all three high schools.''

Mr. Hause accused the three-candidate slate of "putting out misinformation--that students are not getting grades and that we're teaching touchy-feely subjects as opposed to reading, writing, and arithmetic.''

He argued that the district would not be as successful as it is--94 percent of its students graduate and 89 percent go on to college, he said--if students were not learning the basics.

The rhetorical fight in Littleton over what to call the reforms touches on what has become a national issue. To some conservative Christians, taxpayer groups, and parent activists, "outcome-based education'' has become a red-flag phrase that signifies a move away from academics toward behavioral goals and relativistic thinking. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1993.)

The Littleton battle is being closely watched by educators elsewhere in Colorado and nationwide, said Richard Weber, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

"The agendas are so clear,'' he said, "relative to a contrast between people who are fostering reform and those who are fostering a fundamentalist or back-to-basics movement.''

Monitoring Candidates

In addition to outcomes-based education, other issues that have raised the hackles of some conservative Christians are being debated in a number of Colorado races, according to People for the American Way, the liberal constitutional-liberties group, which has been monitoring school board races throughout the state.

The group has distributed questionnaires to candidates in 26 districts. Michael Hudson, the vice president and general counsel of the People for the American Way-Action Fund, said the Christian Coalition, the Rev. Pat Robertson's group, has produced voters' guides on specific issues of concern to conservative Christian voters.

"There is clearly a coordinated, broad-based anti-O.B.E. campaign here in Colorado,'' Mr. Hudson asserted.

The group is "watching'' the Littleton race and races in Jefferson and Douglas counties, where creationism and sex education have been debated, Mr. Hudson said.

Candidates on both sides of the Littleton debate, however, said that religious concerns had no role in the race there.

In recent days, moreover, People for the American Way itself has come under fire. The group has been accused of exaggerating the influence of conservative Christian groups on the Colorado races and of wrongly labeling candidates as associates of the "religious right.''

Under a new balloting procedure, voters in some Colorado districts, including Littleton, will be able to cast their ballots by mail for the first time. While the mail ballots are expected to boost the historically low voter turnout in school board races, the new method also has made it impossible to predict the outcome of races, local observers said.

The balloting method is one reason that People for the American Way has been monitoring Colorado. The group has pushed for candidates to fully disclose their views, rather than running what have been called "stealth campaigns'' that only target like-minded audiences.

The mail balloting could make it easier for candidates to run such campaigns, the group believes.

Contracts At Issue

In Nashua, meanwhile, a referendum on next week's ballot sponsored by a ward alderman in that New Hampshire city would give the city council the final authority to approve financial items in contracts negotiated by the school board.

Currently, the council must approve the money to pay for contracts, but it does not have the authority to question specific provisions of negotiated agreements.

The referendum question comes as many Nashua homeowners are feeling pinched by rising tax bills. Also on the ballot is a measure that would cap the city's budget.

The referendum is being supported by the Nashua Taxpayers Association, and is opposed by the local teachers' union and the school board. The opponents argue that the measure would interfere with collective bargaining and remove school board members' accountability.

"Anyone who deals with negotiations knows a contract is a group of items that are very interrelated,'' said George Farrington, the president of the school board. "It's difficult to take one portion of an entire agreement out and analyze it by itself and say that, therefore, the whole agreement would not go forward.''

Cincinnati To Vote on Bonds

In Cincinnati, voters are being asked for the first time in 22 years to approve a bond issue for school facilities. The $348 million bond issue is part of a $393 million package of capital projects that includes $288 million to repair and upgrade deteriorating schools, $74 million to build new classrooms, and $30 million for a central computer system that will contain student records and grades.

All principals, union representatives, and school-decisionmaking-council leaders in the district have received tours of their respective buildings so that they will understand the need for the improvements and can explain to parents and the public what the bond issue would buy, said Wayne Brinkman, the vice president of Cincinnatians Active To Support Education.

Some students in Cincinnati attend classes in closets, hallways, and on auditorium stages, he said.

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