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State, Local Opinion Mixed on Goals 2000 Law

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Washington

As local and state officials gear up to implement the Goals 2000 education-reform strategy, many have concluded that it will blend in well with reforms already under way, while some also view it as a potential catalyst for further reform efforts.

But at the same time, some of the state and local officials who attended a Goals 2000 conference here last week remain skeptical of assurances that the effort will not lead to increased federal control of schooling and new mandates that are not accompanied by new funding.

"This is very consistent with our own reform efforts; I'm not too worried about having to change what we're doing,'' said Robert J. Brown, the director of the Minnesota board of education. "Unless they get more regulatory than they claim, it's not going to be a problem.''

"It isn't enough [money] to excite states that aren't doing anything in reform,'' Mr. Brown added.

The Minnesotan's mixed feelings about the recently enacted Goals 2000: Educate America Act reflects the opinions expressed by many participants in the conference, organized by the U.S. Education Department as an effort to help state and local officials get their Goals 2000 programs under way.

Indeed, that kind of uncertainty is what drew some of the 400 participants to the three-day meeting.

"We're really still in a learning situation,'' said Jimmy Hicks, a consultant to the education department of the Federated States of Micronesia. "A lot of people are still asking: What is Goals 2000?''

"We want to understand the intent of the program,'' said Lisa Graham, the chairwoman of the House education committee in Arizona. "I think even the drafters aren't sure, quite frankly, exactly how this will play out.''

Reform Grants

The central component of Goals 2000 is a grant program that is to provide seed money to states that agree to set challenging content and performance standards--and develop complementary assessments--as part of an education-reform plan. School districts will be eligible for funds to implement their own plans, consistent with state efforts.

For fiscal 1994, $86.5 million was appropriated for grants to states, which are expected to be available after July 1.

In exchange, they will be required to fill out an application explaining how they will develop a state school-improvement plan that includes the high standards and appoint a "broadly representative'' panel to oversee the drafting of the plan.

Department officials have said that they will allow states a great degree of latitude in applying for first-year funding, and the agency does not intend to publish formal regulations. In effect, they have not laid down specific criteria, but rather have asked states to describe how they will establish a process for launching a school-improvement initiative. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

Should states submit unacceptable applications, department officials stressed last week, technical assistance will be provided.

But several conference participants said they would like a more specific idea of what criteria the department will use to judge their applications.

Flexible or Vague?

"The question I had in my mind is: 'What are the evaluation questions that the department intends to apply?''' said Edith Eckels, a consultant to the state department of education in Iowa.

Other conference participants, however, said that the form is straightforward, and that their colleagues are simply unused to freedom and flexibility.

"I think people have made it more difficult than it seems to be,'' said Patrick Sweeney, a policy analyst for the Wisconsin department of public instruction. "It's a different process than historically has existed. ... They want to be told what to do.''

Department officials have not yet specified how they will review the state reform plans, either. Officials said they will be prepared to review such plans this fall, although they expect few states to be able to submit them so soon.

"The big overarching question is how we're going to go about judging and evaluating state plans,'' Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, said in an interview. "We know the basic ingredients for that, but what kind of specific evidence we need to look for is still unanswered.''

All states were represented at the meeting, which also drew educators from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other federal territories.

Generally, participants said they view the Goals 2000 program as supportive of their existing school reforms.

Mixed Reviews

Ann Clapper, an administrator at Valley City (N.D.) State University, said the program has helped bring coherence to disjointed reform efforts in her state.

"We've made some progress, but the feds are modeling what they want us to do ... and are giving us more of a focus,'' she said.

She said performance-assessment legislation passed in 1991 is the subject of "renewed discussion, and we feel we're on the right track'' as a result of Goals 2000.

The North Dakota team of educators that attended the conference, Ms. Clapper said, will "form the core'' of a larger group that will focus on implementing reforms.

Other participants were more skeptical.

"I'd like to allay our skepticism. Those in power may have the greatest intentions in the world, but they won't always be there,'' said Stowell Johnstone, the chairman of Alaska's board of education. "My concern is, what do you do to keep the money coming?''

Andrew Cunningham, an assistant director for policy research in the office of Gov. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, said it is unclear to him whether his state needs to embark on an ambitious reform program, although they are likely to participate in Goals 2000.

"We're a state achieving well by the old system,'' he said. "It's hard to get consensus on a big change when you're doing well. All of this is very interesting, but the question is whether we need it.''

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