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Fervor Spreads To Overhaul State Agencies

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State politicians who want to remake the education system are going straight to the top, vowing to overhaul the very agencies and boards that oversee local schools.

Bills and speeches targeting state bureaucracies trickle through every legislative session. But in recent months the floodgates have opened, and state education officials are wondering who will still be afloat once the deluge subsides.

Thirty states are in the midst of, or have recently faced, a reorganization or reduction of their education departments, according to a new survey by the National Association of State Boards of Education. A dozen legislatures are considering proposals to abolish their state school boards, and many more are considering reducing their boards' authority, the poll found.

Such actions mirror the popular political trends of reducing government intervention and pushing authority to local officials, observers say. They add, however, that while in many cases the governance debate may be about rethinking the role states play in shaping how schools operate, the impetus to act may prevent sufficient discussion.

"Much of the furor seems to be political rather than the result of a thoughtful analysis about what will ultimately work best for America's students and their families," said Brenda L. Wellburn, the executive director of N.A.S.B.E.

'Local People Know Best'

But the lawmakers and state leaders pushing the deregulation plans insist that they see a clear need for a shakedown at the highest levels of school policymaking.

"Our guiding principle is that local people know what works best in local schools," said Karen Hughes, the communications director for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. The Governor has been encouraging lawmakers to strip the Texas Education Agency of its ability to regulate schools.

"It has exceeded its intent and authority by interfering and meddling," Ms. Hughes said of the state's education department.

Many other officials familiar with state governance structures argue, however, that the changes being proposed around the country are coming willy-nilly. The N.A.S.B.E. survey appears to underscore that contention.

Bills in Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, and New Hampshire seek to improve education policymaking by moving from appointed state board members to elected representatives. In Hawaii and Ohio, meanwhile, lawmakers have put forth plans to remedy policymaking problems by making the elected posts into appointed seats.

And while some states are looking at measures to abolish the state board, lawmakers in Wisconsin, the only state without such a board, are considering a bill to create one.

A Need for Debate

Observers say all the activity suggests a need for a wide-ranging debate over the size and shape of state guidance.

"With so much turnover in legislatures and the political leadership in states, there are a lot of people who don't have a sense of why things have been set up as they have," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, who serves as president of the state board of education in Maryland.

"There is a learning curve on the ideas of citizen input and the independence of education policymaking that has not really gone very far yet," he said. "As you look at it, you see the need for a sounding board and group of people who can be responsive to parents and teachers and come up with sound policy without being political."

Yet the results of the N.A.S.B.E. survey suggest that political interests are injecting themselves more and more into the core of the state policy apparatus and showing little regard for its historical role.

In North Carolina, officials are planning a massive shake-up of the education department while cutting its size in half. (See related story .)

Bills in Georgia and Texas, meanwhile, would reduce the authority of state school boards in selecting textbooks and assessing students. A Louisiana commission has recommended that more decisionmaking authority be concentrated in the governor's office.

"Calling for a reorganization is the quickest way to signal to the public that something new is happening,"(See education--a body facing a bill calling for its elimination. "Right now, you see a lot of the grass-is-greener concept at work out there."

Lead or Follow?

In an effort to spur what it considers a more constructive dialogue, N.A.S.B.E. recently created a study group on school governance to delve into the issues of the state role in education. Chaired by Mr. Brown, an education professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, the group is expected to present its findings late next year.

In the meantime, observers said, it is unlikely that the scrutiny of state boards and education departments will subside.

Richard L. Thompson, who spent two years as the state superintendent in Mississippi, said that while he felt the pressure of critics, the bashing of state regulators has hit an all-time high.

"Maybe there are too many regulations, but a lot of times people in state education departments want to make sure they are not responsible for some dollars somewhere being misused," he said. "If we don't tighten the screws a little tighter, it may lead to trouble, but now we may have gotten them too tight."

Mr. Thompson, who now works as associate vice president of academic affairs for the University of North Carolina system, said striking a balance is a tough job.

"People are really asking right now whether the state's job is to help push or to get out of the way," he said.

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