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Bills to Scrap NESIC Likely To Hold Sway

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Washington

The federal council designed to endorse national and state standards in education appeared all but dead last week as committee leaders in both houses of Congress promised to abolish it.

News that the head of the Senate education committee had introduced a bill that would eliminate the National Education Standards and Improvement Council followed weeks of mounting criticism of it, even though the council has yet to be seated. The chairman of the House education committee was drafting a similar bill late last week.

Anticipating the developments in Congress, members of the National Education Goals Panel had decided at their Jan. 28 meeting to seek alternatives. The bipartisan group of federal and state officials will spend the next month exploring how the private sector could help it review standards.

"The political reality demands that we do this in another way," said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat and a member of the panel. He proposed the creation of a privately financed and operated group.

Panel members are hoping their actions will deflect some of the political controversy surrounding NESIC, particularly charges that the federal government is telling states and school districts how and what to teach.

There have been signs since the November elections that the new Republican-controlled Congress would move to curtail some aspects of the national-standards effort. (See related stories, 12/07/94 and 01/11/95.)

"Getting it away from government, especially the federal government, is a good idea," said Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, a Democrat and a member of the goals panel.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told the panel that he would ask President Clinton to delay appointing NESIC's 19 members until the goals panel found an alternative. The President has yet to act on the nominations submitted by the goals panel, Congress, and the Education Department.

Congress created NESIC last year as part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The group was to have worked with the goals panel to certify model national standards and state standards and assessments that were voluntarily submitted for its approval.

But the council has become a lightning rod for critics who fear that it would operate as a "national school board" and endorse standards that are politically biased.

Last month, the Senate voted 99 to 1 for a nonbinding amendment opposing certification of the proposed national history standards. Members charged that the standards failed to respect the contributions of Western civilization. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1995.)

"I do not believe it is appropriate to expand federal involvement into areas traditionally handled by states and localities," Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, the chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said last week.

The Kansas Republican's bill would also eliminate the National Education Goals Panel's authority to approve or endorse voluntary national standards. It would also prohibit the federal government from providing funds for the development of model or national content, student-performance, and opportunity-to-learn standards. Opportunity-to-learn standards would specify the teaching and learning conditions students need to achieve at high levels.

An aide to Ms. Kassebaum's House counterpart, Rep. Bill Goodling, the chairman of the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, said last week the Pennsylvania Republican was still working on his bill.

"But conceptually," the aide said, "we agree 100 percent that NESIC should be eliminated."

'Queasy and Concerned'

The details of Governor Romer's proposal for the voluntary outside review of national and state standards remained unclear. States still need advice on whether their standards are world-class and how they compare with those in other states, he said at the goals panel's meeting.

Although many panelists accepted that idea, some bristled at the notion that any group--including the goals panel--would have authority to certify a state's standards.

"Is this legitimate or not is where you start to get people queasy and concerned," said Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, a Republican. Even Mr. Romer conceded that it may not be necessary--or wise--to pursue the idea of certification for now.

But he and others emphasized that the goals panel still needs to play a leadership role in the standards movement. "There's a clear statement here today that we need to continue to function very strongly," he argued.

Unlike NESIC, the goals panel is dominated by state officials. It includes eight governors, four state legislators, four members of Congress, the Secretary of Education, and the President's domestic-policy adviser.

"I can say flat out that I think it would be a terrible mistake to remove the responsibility of the goals panel in terms of the review of these standards," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

That view was seconded by Roberts T. Jones, the executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business, who spoke on behalf of the Business Task Force on Student Standards. Mr. Jones urged the panel not to abandon the traditional, bipartisan leadership that has supported the need for standards.

"Education-achievement standards cannot be sacrificed to any incidental political debate on structures or other issues," he said.

Congressional aides said last week they were still sorting through the appropriate role for the goals panel. "I'm sure that they'll be a part of the debate as this goes forward," said one aide.

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