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New Laws Leave State, Local Officials Full of Questions

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With planning for the 1995-96 school year under way and dramatic changes in federal education programs taking effect, roughly 2,000 state and local education officials came to a recent Education Department conference here looking for answers.

But many participants found answers hard to come by. Federal officials were unable to provide guidance on how to respond to some new provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was reauthorized this fall. Indeed, they expressed as much interest in hearing suggestions from the field on some topics as in offering suggestions.

"We don't know a lot yet," said Joel P. Walton, Tennessee's impact-aid director. "All the tough issues are yet to be decided or are in the process" of being decided.

"This was something to rally the troops and get them charging forward," said B.J. Granbery, Montana's Title 1 director. "The questions will be answered as we go."

The meeting--billed as the first "mega" conference, replacing smaller meetings for directors of individual K-12 programs that had been held throughout the year--allowed federal officials to take their case for school reform built around high academic standards and regulatory flexibility to state and local decisionmakers.

It also was designed to bring together state and local education officials to discuss ways to improve student achievement. In some cases, it was the first time state officials running different programs had come together to discuss school reform.

"Before I came to this meeting, I didn't know who from my state was coming," said Thomas Keller, who directs the Eisenhower professional-development program in Maine. "On a day-to-day basis, we don't put enough importance on these dialogues. What this [conference] is doing is forcing us to ask questions and make connections."

Standards and Flexibility

Standards-setting and flexibility were two key elements in the education and school-reform bills Congress passed during its most recent legislative session: the Goals 2000: Educate America Act; the Improving America's Schools Act, which reauthorized the e.s.e.a.; and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act.

Goals 2000 provides school-reform grants to states in exchange for improvement plans and promises to set high academic standards. The reauthorized e.s.e.a. includes complementary provisions requiring states to set high content standards in mathematics and language arts as part of their Title I programs. Both bills include various provisions that make it easier for states and districts to tailor the federal programs to particular local needs.

Rather than provide specific answers to questions, federal officials sought to impress on conferees the need to work collaboratively with each other and within their own bureaucracies, to build partnerships with parents, and to set high expectations for all students, including those traditionally seen as low achievers.

Flexibility was also a pervasive theme. Federal officials encouraged participants to begin thinking about the kinds of federal regulations they would like to see waived to allow their programs to work better. Waivers, officials said, can be granted as early as July 1, 1995, and they encouraged states to send in their requests as soon as possible.

Federal officials also said they are "moving as fast as we can" to establish procedures under which states can apply for what is known as "ed flex" status, under which states would have the authority to waive some federal rules for school districts.

Some state and local officials said that they welcome the lifting of regulations and that federal action will complement their own deregulation efforts.

"We have always been guided by compliance rather than quality," said Roy L. Cates, the director of migrant education for the Oklahoma Department of Education. "Once [teachers] have an idea of where they're going and have some flexibility to get there, they're going to perform."

At-Risk Assurances

Others were more cautious.

"I see both good and bad," said Marlene Filewich, the director of federally funded programs for Community School District #11 in the Bronx in New York City.

The new laws "allow greater flexibility," she said, "but in my position, I still have to be acutely aware that we're giving the best educational opportunities to the children in need."

Federal officials stressed that improving the academic performance of disadvantaged children, who have traditionally been targeted by some of the largest federal programs, can best be accomplished by focusing on whole- school reform and high standards.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, in his first speech since undergoing prostate surgery, drew an enthusiastic applause when he told conferees: "The surest way to create an angry, 19-year-old, semi-literate dropout is a limited education from the 1st grade."

"Our mission is to insure equal access to education and promote high standards for all," he said.

The participation of Judith A. Winston, the Education Department's general counsel, and Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights, on a panel discussion of school reform was apparently designed to assure some concerned conference participants that the department's advocacy of school reform would not overtake its support for equal educational opportunity.

"We are not doing a service to the kids we represent if we don't seek quality and if we don't seek excellence," Ms. Cantu said. "As an advocate, I see the need for school reform as you have discussed at this conference."

Despite some concerns over equity, conference participants expressed confidence in the direction in which the Clinton Administration is moving.

"Students will live up to what we expect," Ms. Filewich said, calling the Administration's endorsement of high standards for all students "a major boon for us."

Edward Costa, the federal-state relations director for the Rhode Island Education Department, said the use of federal dollars to spur local reforms is welcome.

"Using federal programs as a resource to drive a state agenda, that's the exciting part," Mr. Costa said. "We've never done that before."

Many of the officials expressed concern that, despite the bipartisan support much recent school-reform legislation has garnered, a Republican-led Congress could imperil federal education funding.

"It's too hard to predict at this point what the next year has in store for us," said Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary Riley. "Our chances of getting money are greatest if the education community presents a united front and a compelling case for the resources we need."

"As leaders, you have to got to engage the public," added Thomas W. Payzant, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "They don't understand, necessarily, what we're trying to do."

Staff Writer Robert C. Johnston also contributed to this report.

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