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States Take Aim at Regulatory Beast: School Codes

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Sometime soon, Bill Ratliff will drop a bomb in the Texas Senate's legislative hopper.

Mr. Ratliff, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been working for two years on an explosive project: a bill that would replace all the state's education laws. Pressed for detail, he says the plan would empower local school officials, teachers, and parents to run their own schools. He also boasts that it would simplify the state's cumbersome, 420-page school code, cutting it by 40 percent.

But Mr. Ratliff declines to reveal a single law, annotation, or comma that his bill would delete. The more that is known about his bomb, he said recently, the more likely that it will be defused.

While Mr. Ratliff operates like a conspirator plotting his government's overthrow, he is just one of a growing number of politicians using blunt tactics to try to reform state education laws.

Gov. Pete Wilson of California announced plans last month to replace the entire education code by 1997. Soon after, Gov. John Engler of Michigan announced that he, too, would seek to abolish his state's tangled body of school laws and construct an alternative.

Both Governors argued that the best way to decentralize education is to start from scratch. But as simple as that may sound, the road from rhetoric to reality could run through a minefield of tough questions about the benefits of local control and the hazards of an all-or-nothing approach.

Governor Wilson has already been forced to reconsider his dramatic proposal, but, despite doubts, he has said he will press ahead.

A Barnacle-Ridden Target

As policymakers at both the federal and state levels aim to streamline government, education codes are an easy, barnacle-ridden target, observers say.

In Texas, for example, a law still on the books prevents school employees from joining "bunds," the pro-Nazi Germany groups that formed in America in the 1930's. Another three chapters of the code regulate several classifications of school districts that no longer exist.

In California, the school code consumes 11 of the state's 28 volumes of law. In his recent State of the State speech, Governor Wilson noted that its more than 7,000 pages "have prescribed everything from how many electrical sockets must be in each classroom to how many fruit trees can be on a school campus."

"It's really quite a monstrosity," said Maurice A. Ross, the assistant dean of the education school at the University of Southern California. "The detail and prescriptive nature of the law are unbelievable."

2,000 Bills

Legislative excess has turned state codes into regulatory beasts, critics contend.

In California, lawmakers introduce some 2,000 education bills each legislative session, a direct result of their control over most of the funding for the state's schools, according to Mr. Ross.

"If they have the money, they call the shots," he said.

The codes also tend to be packed with laws adopted as a reaction to a single district's problems, school administrators say.

In California, for example, a legislator responded to reports of an extravagant retreat for administrators by successfully pushing a bill to prohibit out-of-district retreats, said Robert M. Baum, a member of an education advisory committee that helped craft Governor Wilson's reform plan.

Because the offending administrators were from a high school district, the law does nothing to limit retreats by staff members of elementary or unified districts.

"I don't believe that education law ought to deal with exceptions rather than the rule," said Mr. Baum, the superintendent of the 35,000-student Mount Diablo district. "But that's the way we legislate, and that's why we have such a massive code."

Once laws are on the books, they often become sacred cows to a special interest and cannot be peeled off.

In Texas, for example, school lobbyists in the last legislative session fought to strike a 1989 law that required the conversion of school buses to use alternative fuels. A study by seven districts seeking a waiver of the law showed that compliance would have totaled up to $23 million.

The powerful natural-gas industry in Texas teamed up with environmentalists to fight the strapped schools and eventually won a compromise.

The Bomb's Pros and Cons

Isolated attempts at reform can rarely crack the calcified school codes and regulations, according to policymakers with deregulation experience.

"The key is to do it all at once," said Brad Hurley, a former Tennessee education official who helped cut 3,700 regulations imposed by the state school board. "If you do it single-shot, you'll get nitpicked to death."

Texas officials set the stage for a new code by passing a "sunset" provision that will automatically abolish the old code on Sept. 1 of this year.

It was "a means to hold a gun to our head and make us do something," Senator Ratliff said.

But others argue that striking an entire code inevitably means that the good laws are erased with the bad.

"If you throw out the whole thing, then things that we have fought for so diligently for children over the years may go down the drain," said Lois Tinson, the president-elect of the California Teachers Association.

Massive deregulation can also encourage bureaucracies at the local level that can resist reform and spawn bloat of their own, said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"The more that you put power in the hands of the district," he added, "the more you have to have administrators there to handle it."

Taking Rhetoric to Reality

Already, some Governors appear to be learning that backing up their bold promises will be tough. While Mr. Wilson said he is moving forward with his plan to rewrite the California school laws, even his supporters suggest that a clean, surgical strike is unlikely.

In Michigan, Mr. Engler's proposal to replace the education code with one that emphasizes local roles and responsibilities could violate the state constitution's requirement that the state oversee its public schools, observers say.

But given the success of Michigan lawmakers and Mr. Engler in overhauling that state's school-finance system by first abolishing it entirely a little over a year ago, few are willing to bet that he will not eventually replace the entire code as well.

"Michigan has the history," said Ray S. Telman, the associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. "We dropped a bomb on school finance, and that worked, so who knows?"

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