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Code Revisions Spur Change in Texas Climate

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Mesquite, Texas

For now, the revolution in public education in Texas is only visible in out-of-the-way places, like the corner of John Horn's desk.

When the meticulous superintendent of schools here looks down this morning, he sees nothing but the dark wood grain of his desktop. To Mr. Horn and many other superintendents around the state, a clear spot like this is testament enough that things are changing.

"The information I used to get from the state would be stacked there three or four inches high, daily," Mr. Horn said. "When you figure in all the reporting that we would have to send back, I guess it took trucks to carry it all."

Now there are occasional packages. Sometimes nothing.

Last year, the Texas legislature took on the monstrous task of rewriting the state's education laws. In a year when conservative legislators across the country decided that public schools needed a swift dose of deregulation, Texas led the way.

By the time lawmakers were finished, gone were 46 years of accumulated rules and regulations. The state school board cut its list of rules from 490 to 230.

"They used to tell us how to do everything," Mr. Horn recalled. "Down to when the principal could use the intercom."

The state education department cut 185 of its more than 1,000 employees and is bracing for the loss of 50 more. The department is limiting its focus to meeting state goals, setting a core curriculum, administering state tests, overseeing a state accountability system, and trumpeting model practices.

"We want to challenge school districts to improve without trying to get involved in how," said Mike Moses, the Texas education commissioner.

The new system allows districts to adopt their own textbooks, lets them grant teaching permits to non-certified teachers, and calls for more discussions about the route communities and schools will take to improve.

The experiment here and in other states begins to reverse a decade of reforms that assigned more and more duties to public schools and spelled out exactly how the work would be done.

Texas lawmakers now believe motivating--and allowing--local educators to find their own way will bring higher achievement. And the state is becoming a laboratory for how much freedom school districts actually want and what they will do with it.

Halfway through the first school year under the new school code, the changes are hardly visible. Teachers report hearing about changes but cannot name many they have made, and principals interrupt on the intercom at familiar intervals.

"You are going to see the change right now in the board room," said Mr. Moses, who spent 13 years as a local superintendent in Texas before becoming the state commissioner last year. "But it has to happen there before it will get to the classroom."

Indeed, district-level administrators who form the link between state regulators and local classrooms are seeing a new approach from the education department that is remarkably uncharacteristic of a Texas school bureaucracy.

The Texas Education Agency, once one of the nation's largest and most demanding state education departments, is coaching districts on their newfound options. And superintendents are taking advantage of a waiver program that lets them seek relief from remaining regulations. Over the past seven months, the TEA has granted 1,258 waiver requests.

"We've got a lot of people who are used to saying, 'Tell me what to do,"' Mr. Horn said. "But you can't do things just because the state agency says so anymore. You have to do what you believe in and what will work because it is good for kids."

No Home-Rule Takers

As the rhetoric over deregulation spread last year in Texas, the vision certainly went further than what seems to have taken root over the past few months in the state's schools.

The law provided for open enrollment in districts across the state. In concept, that would allow parents to pull their children from low-achieving districts and send them to better schools elsewhere.

But nearly all of the more than 400 parents who have tried to opt for a new school have been turned away because many Texas districts are declining to accept out-of-district students.

Another provision that would allow the creation of up to 20 new charter schools that could operate free from many state rules has drawn little interest.

And the law's most highly touted feature--the creation of "home-rule school districts" encumbered by only the most basic laws and rules--has yet to find any takers.

Officials of the Plano school district north of Dallas had been among the most vocal backers of the home-rule idea. Forced by the state's school-finance program to pay $16 million of its local property-tax proceeds to the state, the 38,300-student district is interested in almost any idea that will stretch its $184 million budget.

But Superintendent Doug Otto said that, for now, the home-rule option does not offer enough relief to warrant the time it would take to draft an application and lobby local voters.

"We wonder if it would alienate Teachers to waive class-size requirements, we wonder what would happen to the school board if we moved to a home-rule commission, and there is so much more," Mr. Otto explained.

Like many other school administrators, he is optimistic that the law's other regulatory changes provide the bulk of the freedom districts have been seeking.

"With the flexibility of waivers and the TEA reorganization, we have a whole new climate in which we can operate," Mr. Otto said. "Now, there isn't that much of a felt need for home rule."

Over the past several years, many states have revamped their education departments. Others have recently passed laws making it easier to win waivers from state regulations.

Some states have gone further: A bill passed late last year by the Michigan legislature that would overhaul the state's massive education code awaits the signature of Gov. John Engler.

In California, Gov. Pete Wilson last week urged lawmakers to tackle a rewrite of that state's 11-volume education code. "It makes the IRS code look like a Dick and Jane reader," Mr. Wilson said.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has explained that his state's approach of offering many decentralization and deregulation strategies to local districts--including those that are yet to be accepted--leaves them with few excuses for failure.

"This is all about self-determination," Mr. Horn of Mesquite said.

The new climate also includes creation of a system of alternative schools. The new education code gives Teachers broad authority to remove unruly students from their classrooms, but requires districts to have "second chance" programs for children who might previously have been suspended or expelled.

Districts Uncertain

Both Mr. Otto and Mr. Horn are working with neighboring superintendents to create regional or countywide alternative schools.

Superintendents across Texas are also huddling with lawyers to get a grasp on new contract-negotiation rules, new school-improvement programs, and what the revisions in the state's testing program and no-pass, no-play rules for student athletes will mean in their districts.

"Every time you read this code you find something different," Mr. Otto, the Plano schools chief, said.

Mr. Horn, in his 18th year as a Texas superintendent, said he is pleased to see the state taking a direction that might put districts in a better position to meet lawmakers' goals.

"We are seeing a shift in the notion which used to be, 'We want excellence and we're going to tell you how to get it and hold your feet to the fire,"' Mr. Horn said. "People are realizing that you don't get excellence by regulation. It comes from competence and commitment."

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