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Ax Education Agency, Okla. State Employees Urge

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A panel of Oklahoma state employees recommends completely revamping the state education system and abolishing the education department in a report aimed at streamlining government.

Commissioned by Gov. Frank Keating and issued last month, the stinging report minces no words in its denunciation of what the panel sees as a failed education system, from elementary schools to the state's universities.

"Parents are turned off by the education community; too many students are failing at all levels; and meanwhile, Oklahoma's overall education results are medi-ocre," the group concludes.

As part of the proposed restructuring, the state would cluster its 550 school districts by region to reduce administrative costs and would turn decisionmaking over to local school officials.

The Governor's Performance Team also backs approaches that its members hope would empower parents and make schools respond to market forces: charter schools, state-funded vouchers that would follow students to public or private schools, and state-wide open enrollment.

"The power should be with the customer," Michael L. Ashcraft, a member of the performance team, said. "They should be the masters. And they should be served."

Mr. Ashcraft, who is on leave as the controller of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, said the existing education system siphons too much money from teachers and students. "Administrative overhead is not an indication of customer focus," he argued.

The education recommendations make up about 100 pages of the panel's nearly 700-page report. Its work now goes to the Governor's Commission on Government Performance, which is made up of private-sector leaders. That commission is expected to review the performance team's recommendations and deliver its own report to Gov. Keating around Dec. 15.

Observers were skeptical that Mr. Keating, who has opposed school vouchers, would sign on to the panel's entire agenda. There is also doubt about how the plan will sit with the Democrat-controlled legislature. At least four recent governors had task forces report on government performance without much impact, said Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the state education department.

Savings Foreseen

Nine members of the 50-person performance team--none a professional educator--spent six months reviewing the Oklahoma education system.

If the state were to accept all the report's changes, it could save $350 million to $500 million a year, the panel estimates.

Since 1980, annual spending by the state on K-12 education has increased by more than $1 billion to $2.25 billion in 1995, but Oklahoma is educating roughly the same number of students, about 875,000.

While the panel praises the state's many dedicated teachers and administrators, it writes that "they seem to labor under the yoke of a bureaucratic, disconnected system that competes for resources for the sake of educational turf."

Under the proposal, management would be turned over to individual schools. An elected council made up of the principal and teacher, parent, student, and community representatives would control everything from money to personnel to curriculum.

The plan also advocates establishing regional business-service centers to provide common services to school districts such as accounting, data processing, and transportation. The centers would share facilities with existing vocational centers. The panel did not advise closing any schools.

Whether the governor will forward any of the recommendations to the legislature will not be known until at least next month.

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