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Boards Seen Setting Tone for Standards Efforts

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Washington

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act created two boards that will help set the first national standards for what U.S. students and workers should know and be able to do.

Now Congress and the Clinton Administration must assemble a group of panelists that satisfies the need for expertise and the complicated requirements of the law--as well as the interest groups that are already lobbying for maximum presence on the boards. The quality of the panels could determine the future of the drive to set such voluntary standards.

"This is the first time that we've had national standards,'' said Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "And, I think, what everybody wants to know is that the people overseeing this process ... can be counted on to do it well and have the expertise and judgment and the range of perspectives needed.''

Federal officials hope to have the boards seated by September, a deadline that most admit is ambitious. Michaela Meehan, the team leader for the skills-standards initiative in the Labor Department, said appointments would have to be made by next month so that nominees could go through the clearance process in time.

Most of those responsible for nominating board members began soliciting names March 31, the day the Goals 2000 law was enacted. But the process is complex.

In the case of the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, four players will make recommendations to the President about who should sit on the board.

Each set of nominations must fit into predetermined categories that represent various stakeholders in the standards-setting process. In addition, the nominations are supposed to be balanced between the two major political parties.

'Very Convoluted'

Members of the National Skill Standards Board are appointed by three individuals: the President, the Speaker of the House, and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Somehow, those players have to coordinate their efforts to create a cohesive and well-balanced board, Ms. Meehan observed.

"The process is very convoluted,'' said Patty Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with the National Governors' Association. "I certainly wouldn't want to be the guy in the White House who has to make sure that there's the right geographic, gender, racial, and expertise mix and then make sure that all those people are willing to serve.''

Diane Rossi, a special assistant to Mr. Riley, said the Education Department has received more than 300 suggested nominees for NESIC and new names flow in daily.

The department has also sought nominations internally from officials who oversee civil-rights enforcement, bilingual education, adult and vocational education, and special education, among others.

"We don't have any shortage of wonderful people who are willing to serve,'' Ms. Rossi said. "But a lot of the names that come in are simply names, so we're having to go and get bios on some of these people so that we can find out what they would bring to the mix.''

To solicit nominations for the skills-standards board, the Labor, Commerce, and Education departments sent a joint letter to more than 100 groups in March. To date, more than 190 suggestions have been returned.

But perhaps the most extensive solicitation process has been carried out by the National Education Goals Panel. The 18-member panel is culling through nearly 200 names provided by panel members and interest groups. A committee will help narrow the list to 12 names to be sent to the President.

"We want quality and expertise to prevail,'' said Emily Wurtz, a senior education associate for the goals panel. "If Republicans and Democrats sign off on the slate as appearing well-balanced, we hope that's a way to comply with the law.''

Interest-Group Politics

The law's complicated nomination process is a result of Congressional efforts to placate a variety of stakeholders, but it contains enough flexibility to encourage lobbying efforts. While everyone agrees that the caliber of people who serve on the boards is crucial, groups also want to insure that their own interests are represented.

"We're very, very hopeful that the Labor Department will realize how important it is to have vocational educators'' on the skills-standards board, said Madeleine Hemmings, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational-Technical Education.

"We believe that we have a good shot at getting at least four or five business representatives'' on NESIC, said Michele Cahn, the director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Alliance of Business. "We think that's tremendously important, because if we develop academic standards that don't relate to workplace requirements, then what's the point?''

Meanwhile, the governors would like to see "the best and the brightest'' serve on both boards, said Ms. Sullivan, "and the question is, who are those people?''

"My sense, from talking to the governors' staffs,'' she added, "is that they'd like a number of nationally recognized names, but also a number of people who are still in classrooms and in schools.''

But at least one observer noted that it is a daunting prospect to sort through the names of local teachers and administrators.

Others reiterated the need for technical expertise, given the boards' ambitious agenda.

Despite pressure to launch the effort soon, most observers said the wisest approach may be to proceed with caution.

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