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Conservatives Vie To Use Momentum To Push Reform Agenda

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Washington

In the wake of Republican victories in state and federal elections last November, advocates of such school reforms as parental choice, charter schools, and privatization gathered here last week to discuss how to harness the political momentum they sense is swinging their way.

"It does seem to me to be an important moment in time for ed-ucation reform," said William J. Bennett, who served as Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration and "drug czar" under President George Bush. "There is now an unparalleled opportunity...to break the federal stranglehold on education."

Mr. Bennett's remarks set the tone for the daylong conference, which included more than 100 local, state, and national education figures eager to move forward with an agenda most succinctly described as providing as much local control over education as possible, and only as much federal involvement as needed.

Mr. Bennett and Lamar Alexander, who served as Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration, reiterated their call for abolition of the Education Department. (See related story .)

And while other participants might not have been as bold, they seemed to agree that the federal role in(See ducation should be reduced, and that the government should not be involved in the setting of academic standards--either through the Clinton Administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act or through the federal grants to subject-area groups that began under President Bush.

The conference was sponsored by Empower America, a conservative Washington-based political group of which Mr. Bennett and Mr. Alexander are co-directors; the Center for Education Reform, a nonpartisan clearinghouse also based here; and the Educational Excellence Network, which is affiliated with the Indianapolis, Ind.-based Hudson Institute.

The Word on Standards

Mr. Bennett called the grants to groups drafting voluntary national standards in various disciplines "a disaster" and suggested that the government recuse itself from further involvement.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the excellence network and a former assistant secretary for research under Mr. Bennett, said standards and accompanying assessments are necessary to gauge student achievement against international and other benchmarks. He cited the national civics standards as "good standards" and said that "every state should take them seriously."

At the same time, he questioned federal funding of the standards.

Beverly Sgro, the commissioner of education in Virginia, said her state has commissioned four school districts, through a competitive-bidding process, to create standards in history, science, mathematics, and language arts that could eventually become state requirements.

But the state has paid for this process on its own rather than apply for federal aid under Goals 2000, Ms. Sgro said, in order to keep the federal Education Department as far removed from the activity as possible.

"We're very cynical," she said. "We're concerned that what's 'voluntary' might not be voluntary."

An aide to Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who recently sponsored a "sense of the Senate" resolution suggesting that the controversial history standards not be certified, said the senator could introduce legislation to modify the history standards before they are adopted.

Representatives of grassroots organizations questioned the setting of standards at any governmental level other than local, and said that parents should have more say in how schools are run.

Flexibility and Regulation

Participants also endorsed increased flexibility at the local level to adopt school-choice programs, create charter schools, and turn the management of public schools over to private companies.

Lisa Graham, the new state superintendent in Arizona, said her top request to the federal government would be to lift regulatory burdens attached to categorical programs and allow the state to mix dollars from federal programs with those of state programs.

The federal Education Department, she said, must understand "that Arizona has a vision for where she wants to go."

But Ms. Graham also seemed to acknowledge a federal role by saying that the department can "help us get there." In effect, she said, the department should become a school-reform assistance agency rather than one that monitors compliance with federal rules.

Clinton Administration officials say that is the direction they are already headed in.

Flexibility "represents a theme the Secretary has sounded for two years," said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "We're willing to acknowledge that there's a fairly common theme of giving schools and communities flexibility in using resources."

For example, the Education Department is working with seven states to determine how federal programs are a help or hindrance to achieving state education goals.

And last week, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent letters to all the governors outlining ways in which their states] "may use federal program resources to best meet your needs."

The Secretary noted that laws enacted last year allow states to ask for waivers, apply for a charter-school demonstration program, and consolidate some federal administrative funds.

In the Jan. 20 Federal Register, the department asked for applications under a program that will give state agencies the opportunity to waive federal regulations for their schools and districts. There is no specific due date for applications, but the department can grant such "Ed-Flex" designation to only six states.

Also last week, the agency established a waiver-assistance line at (202) 401-7801.

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