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Mich. Board Signals Plan To Cede Content Control to Districts

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The Michigan board of education, charged by the legislature with approving a mandatory core curriculum for schools, has come up with another idea: Let schools choose for themselves what they want to teach.

The board, which has a distinctly conservative outlook since Republicans took control in last year's elections, has indicated that it prefers local independence to statewide control. Board members have said that any standards should be voluntary and that, when the issue formally comes before them in the next few months, they will ask lawmakers to take an approach different from the core curriculum.

Long hours of work have gone into defining and polishing the state's academic standards since lawmakers called for a new curriculum in 1993. Yet many board members, lawmakers, and educators remain unconvinced that the state will be able to settle on a plan that will conform with what Michigan parents want their children to learn.

Clark Durant, the board president, has argued that if the state is indeed able to produce sterling standards and an attractive curriculum, local school districts would choose to follow them. But he believes giving local administrators and teachers the freedom to determine their own goals and instruction is more important than determining what should win the state's stamp of approval.

The shift reflects a change in numbers more than a change in thinking, observers said last week.

Past Deals Now Shaky

When state lawmakers adopted the core-curriculum mandate as part of a sweeping school-finance and -reform bill in 1993, Democrats and Republicans shared control of the House.

The legislature passed a massive bill that year that transferred most school-funding authority to the state in an effort to reduce local property taxes. The curriculum mandate became a bargaining chip in an effort to win school improvements in addition to the funding change.

But this year, with Republicans dominating both the House and the Senate, many of the old bargains that were struck then are being wiped out.

Gov. John Engler, a Republican who won re-election in November, strongly supports shrinking the role of government. He has given the G.O.P.-controlled state school board wide latitude to recommend changes in education policy.

"Things have changed since 1993," said Sen. Leon Stille, the chairman of the Senate education committee. "I don't think many members have changed their minds, but there is reason to look again at deciding what path we should take on this."

Avoiding a Fight

Like many states struggling with defining classroom standards, the process in Michigan over the last two years has been a frequent target of critics. (See related story.)

Critics say the recommended standards are vaguely worded and hard to understand. They charge that the standards in some subjects focus too much on extolling cultural diversity while forgetting basic skills.

But rather than provoke a fight over whose values the standards should embody, the board appears likely to argue that Michigan's tradition of local school control should be emphasized. Some lawmakers have urged that the board consider a short list of basic standards in key subject areas.

Some local-control advocates believe such basic standards would be especially useful in the elementary grades.

"We have to make sure the basics are pounded home early," Mr. Stille said. But once basic reading and writing skills are instilled, he would gladly allow districts to blaze their own trails from there.

The state board might then draw up a model curriculum that districts could use as they mapped out their own plans. The state already has a voluntary model curriculum, adopted at the request of lawmakers in 1990.

Addition of the mandatory requirement in 1993 was the result of lawmakers' belief that if they were going to take over the majority of school funding, they also had the right to tell districts what they expected that money would buy.

The signals from the state board that it does not approve of that direction has frustrated some business leaders, who supported the 1993 proposal as a step toward raising student achievement.

The issue of whether standards should be mandatory or voluntary could reach the legislature in the fall as(See education. Lawmakers are in the midst of hearings focusing on rewriting the education code.

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