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Group Formed To Oversee the Quality of Private Schools Fast Expanding Its

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Alexandria, Va.

A group formed less than three years ago to oversee quality in private education is fast expanding its scope and positioning itself as a leader in the education-policy arena.

Last September, the National Council for Private School Accreditation gave an inaugural stamp of approval to six charter organizations that accredit private schools, including the Association of Christian Schools International, the Florida Catholic Conference, and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Schools. (See Education Week, 10/6/94.)

At a meeting here last week, the Washington-based council granted membership to four additional organizations, including one that accredits early-childhood programs and a group of for-profit schools. It also hosted a public-policy forum that gathered about 70 representatives from national and state agencies to discuss private school accreditation.

Participants praised the national council's approach to school improvement as a middle ground between demands for deregulation and cries for accountability. The N.C.P.S.A. "will allow us to have standards, and it will allow us to remain unique and individual," said Linus Wright, a former U.S. undersecretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and an advisory member of the council.

Maintaining Diversity

The council is essentially an umbrella accrediting body established to approve private-school-accrediting associations that meet rigorous standards. Charles J. O'Malley, the council's executive director, formed the group in 1992 to meet what he saw as a glaring need in the private school sector.

Nationwide, there are about 75 different associations that accredit private schools. Few of the groups are well-known.

Most states do not require private schools to be accredited. But most schools seek some kind of approval, either from the state on a voluntary basis or from one or more of the regional bodies that certify public schools and colleges.

Schools can also look to the 75 associations that have sprung up over the past 50 years and that serve particular regions or denominations.

It was that abundance of accrediting organizations that led Mr. O'Malley to set up one more--one intended to have national recognition and clout that would not only guarantee the validity of the others, but also strengthen them through guidance and support from a larger group.

In evaluating a group, the N.C.P.S.A. considers its academic standards and its religious or moral mission, without dictating what that mission should be.

Basically, Mr. O'Malley said, "we ask, are these associations doing what they say they are doing vis-a-vis accrediting their own schools?"

Not a Rubber-Stamp

"I predict this is probably one of the most important groups started in American education over the past decade," said Rabbi Nochem Kaplan of the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools, which represents close to 500 schools.

Rabbi Kaplan said that for years, his group had been stumped trying to figure out the best formula for improving the quality of education in its schools. "Then this came up, and the collegial approach appealed to us," he said.

Since he heard about the N.C.P.S.A., the society has decided to become an accrediting body. It has begun pulling together manuals of principles and standards, arranging site visits to member schools, and starting a self-study process that generally takes groups at least a year before they feel ready to present themselves to the national council.

"There's been such an enthusiastic response," Rabbi Kaplan said. "It's a nonthreatening process and it encourages people to be themselves."

Nonetheless, approval from the council is not a "rubber-stamp process," participants reiterated throughout the meeting.

The first day comprised hearings before the council's commission on standards and review for each of the four groups applying for membership: the Florida Kindergarten Council, the Christian Schools of Florida, the Kentucky Non-public School Commission, and the National Indepen-dent Private Schools Association.

The commission of accreditation experts raised a number of concerns about the applicants' methods before recommending each for full membership. The vote of approval for each of the groups by the 14-voting-member council marked the capstone of months of preparation and work with an N.C.P.S.A. coordinator.

State Recognition

The policy forum that followed highlighted the growing recognition of the national accrediting council in public-policy circles.

"We must find ways to coexist and support the common goal of quality education," said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, in praising the group's efforts.

A number of state officials, including those from Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and South Carolina, expressed interest in making the council's accreditation equivalent to state approval. Such acceptance, Mr. O'Malley said, could relieve states of their responsibilities to accredit private schools, save them money, and eliminate possible conflicts and lawsuits over separation of church and state.

The council could also ease certain federal regulations on private schools and the process of corporate giving, speakers at the meeting explained.

Maurice Berez, an adjudication officer with the U.S. Office of Immigration and Naturalization Services, said he would soon propose that schools with N.C.P.S.A. approval be made eligible to accept alien, nonresident students. Currently, elementary or secondary schools must be sanctioned by the state or by a nationally recognized accrediting agency before they can enroll such students.

Cheryl Martin, the staff director for matching gifts at the University of Maryland, said it may take a while before companies begin to recognize the N.C.P.S.A. stamp.

But when they do, ~~it will alleviate their need to scrutinize schools and the associations they belong to before making a gift, she said. "I think they will welcome another body taking care of things."

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