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Ill. Districts Jump at Chance for Waivers to Rules

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From seeking to drop the observance of a state holiday to asking to postpone a required installation of fire sprinklers, school districts in Illinois are requesting waivers from a wide array of rules from the state school board.

The state's 913 districts won that opportunity under a law signed in February that allows them to ask for either a waiver or modification of state laws or state board rules governing schools.

"We have discovered from many years of painful experience that once you get something into the school code, it is extremely difficult to repeal it," said Mary Lou Cowlishaw, a state representative who helped draft the plan. The law, she said, is an attempt to let districts decide for themselves what rules can be waived to help them do their jobs better.

Ms. Cowlishaw added that although the law requires districts to do some legwork to seek waivers, it is far less than the extra work required by the increasingly large number of regulations.

The Illinois school code was three times thicker in 1994 than it was in 1976, she said, and the newest edition of the statutes takes up nine volumes, up from just three 10 years ago.

Paddling at Issue

As of Sept. 6, the state board had received a total of 116 waiver requests. The board has approved 20 of those requests that involved modifying its own rules, Lee Milner, a board spokesman, said last week.

Those waivers generally involved smaller technical changes, such as granting one district permission to offer extended physical-education classes three days a week rather than shorter classes five days a week and allowing another to contract with a private business to provide a driver-education class.

George Peternel, the principal of Hynes Elementary School in the Golf school district, said the five-days-a-week requirement for PE had forced teachers to double up classes and split the school's only gym in half. Mr. Peternel said he viewed the new law not as a matter of gaining waivers but gaining flexibility. "These are practical-level decisions," he said.

The board will also forward to the legislature 65 of the requests that involve waiving state laws.

Those requests are similarly procedural in nature. Three districts seek to eliminate the residency requirement for the school treasurer, for example. Five others want to remain open on the first Monday in March, the state holiday in honor of Casimir Pulaski, the Polish patriot and U.S. Revolutionary War hero. The holiday is one of nine mandated by the state for schools, and some educators feel that's too many.

Two requests, however, have drawn a significant amount of attention: The Du Quoin and Benton districts have applied for waivers from a 1994 law banning corporal punishment in schools.

Tom Bock, the superintendent of the 1,600-student Du Quoin district, said educators there want to retain corporal punishment as a deterrent to disciplinary problems.

"We're talking about it simply as another alternative, maybe even as a last alternative," he said, noting that corporal punishment was used sparingly when it was still legal.

Rep. Cowlishaw, who is firmly opposed to corporal punishment, predicted that the legislature will almost certainly deny such a request.

Still, said Mr. Bock, he wants to send a message to the legislature: "You're tying our hands at every turn at what means we have available to discipline students." Paddling is also a hot issue in other states. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

Of the remaining waiver requests, three have been returned, three have been withdrawn, and 25 are still pending before the state board.

Regulatory Relief?

Ten states have undertaken waiver efforts similar to that in Illinois, said Kathy Christie, the coordinator of the information clearinghouse at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

But Ms. Christie added that many districts don't take advantage of waivers when they are offered, and that many of the regulations that schools find most limiting are ones that cannot be waived, such as health and safety rules or those governing teacher certification or school construction.

"I think we've seen a huge push in the last couple of years toward less regulation and more freedom," Ms. Christie said. "The questions to ask are how big a difference will [a waiver law] make, will schools take advantage of it, and are the things that are being deregulated the things that are really in people's way."

Or maybe a waiver law is simply "a backwards way of doing things," suggested one regulatory-relief proponent.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based clearinghouse on state education policy, said that the process of applying for relief from regulations is complicated and time-consuming for districts. Legislatures should start from the other direction, she said, and lift regulations so that districts can make their own decisions.

Wholesale mandate relief is essential to making schools better, Ms. Allen argued. "Autonomy is one of the most central elements of effective schools."

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