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A Governor's Legacy: Solid Record on Education

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Gov. Ned McWherter is leaving the Tennessee Governor's mansion this week, but it appears that the school-reform movement that he led during his two terms will stick around.

"I think everyone feels good about the direction Tennessee education is going, and it looks like we will continue in that direction," said Beth Fortune, the press secretary for Don Sundquist, the Republican who will succeed Mr. McWherter, a Democrat who could not run for a third term under state law.

Indeed, observers from across Tennessee's political spectrum praise Mr. McWherter's efforts in education.

"It could be a while before we see all the benefits from reform, but [Mr. McWherter] may have done more for education than any governor we've ever seen," said Jerry Winters, the assistant director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association.

Governor McWherter last week was named the 1994 "Tennessean of the Year" by the state's largest daily newspaper, The Tennessean, in an article that highlighted his education program.

The reforms that are the subject of that praise were passed in the 1992 Education Improvement Act. Part of that law, the 21st Century Schools Act, mandated lower class sizes, set statewide achievement goals, and created a system of rewards and sanctions for schools.

And the law responded to a court order to equalize funding between rural and urban schools by creating a program that will use revenue from a half-cent sales tax to meet the court mandate by 1998.

"I don't think we'll ever get to fully equal funding, but if we can offer equal opportunities, I have no argument," said Bill Emerson, the superintendent of the Crockett County schools, one of 77 districts that sued the state. Mr. Emerson credits Mr. McWherter with coming up with a plan acceptable to small schools and the legislature.

In three years under the formula, state spending on schools increased by 53 percent, or $601 million. Most of the new money has gone to hire 4,150 teachers, add programs, and supplement technology. In 1987, the state was last nationwide in per-pupil expenditures; by 1991-92, its per-pupil spending had passed that of four other states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Sanctions Questioned

The accountability provisions of the law are more controversial. Under the Tennessee Values-Added Assessment System, student test scores are compared against scores in previous years and against national averages to determine whether a school or a district has made academic gains.

"There are school systems that have all the advantages...yet are not showing as much academic gain as systems with few of those advantages," said Wayne Qualls, the state commissioner of education.

Proponents say the results help pinpoint problem areas. However, the results could also be used to put school districts on probation, and eventually to oust superintendents or school board members. The law gives the governor the authority to do just that beginning next fall, when state officials will have accumulated three years of data.

Governor-elect Sundquist opposes taking that authority from the local level, but has no immediate plans to ask lawmakers to repeal the measure, Ms. Fortune said.

Other critics, led by the T.E.A. and the state school boards' association, want lawmakers to commission a study to determine whether the values-added system truly measures academic improvement.

The reform law also requires districts to develop needs assessments and five-year plans with measurable goals and objectives. Schools must issue "disclosure report cards" detailing academic performance and spending.

Students must pick a college-preparatory or work-readiness track, and pass a high school exit exam. And first-time principals must pass exams before employment and must sign performance contracts.

The law also repealed 3,700 older regulations, said Billy Stair, a former senior adviser to Mr. McWherter.

"You cannot reform education on the margins," Mr. Stair said. "You really have to fundamentally alter the way you run education, and that's what we did."

State officials say it is too early to measure the full impact of the 21st Century Schools legislation, but there are early indications that the reforms are helping.

Early Returns

Between 1990 and 1994, scores on state achievement tests rose a few percentage points in most grades. The dropout rate has declined from about 24 percent in 1987 to about 17 percent.

Scholastic Assessment Test scores improved 4 points on the verbal section and 6 points in math in the past two years, although American College Testing program scores remain virtually unchanged, and the number of students taking both tests dropped slightly.

Last fall, 40 high schools and 73 elementary and middle schools shared $500,000 as the first to qualify for 21st Century Schools incentive awards by reaching statewide goals for academic achievement, attendance, promotion, and dropout rates.

As for Mr. McWherter, he will be heading to Washington to work with another former Southern Governor known for his efforts in education reform. A spokesman said Mr. McWherter will serve as an adviser to President Clinton, although the details of his new job remain unclear.

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