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Equity Debates in States Shift To Standards and Technology

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When Gov. Christine Todd Whitman addressed the New Jersey legislature earlier this year, she tackled her state's thorniest political problem, deep inequities between wealthy and poor schools.

Many analysts and educators who have spent years studying disparities among New Jersey school districts have agreed on a traditional answer--about $500 million in new state money. But Gov. Whitman told lawmakers that she plans to ease inequities with new classroom standards, rather than a check from the state.

New Jersey has been ordered to remedy its school-finance problems by the 1997-98 school year, giving the issue particular urgency there. But the solution Gov. Whitman has proposed--shifting the debate from equalizing spending to meeting standards--is being employed by leaders in some other states as well, at least as a rhetorical tool. These politicians, primarily Republicans like Mrs. Whitman, are arguing that setting uniform academic standards and equipping schools with new classroom technology are the best ways to improve poor schools.

Underscoring the rising appeal of these approaches, the education summit between governors and corporate leaders set for later this month will put standards and technology at the center of its agenda.

Some equity experts are concerned that politicians will seize on these strategies as a cheap way to avoid focusing on finance equalization. But they also warn that this view could prove shortsighted, as states that commit to high standards will one day have to pay to ensure all schools can reach them.

"Standards and technology have promise," said Craig Foster, the executive director of the Equity Center, an advocacy group that represents 375 Texas school districts. "But they are being overpromoted for political reasons. They can contribute to the solution, but they are not the answer."

In a new twist on a national standards debate that has primarily focused on raising educational expectations, Mrs. Whitman and others are arguing that standards can serve as an answer to the equity dilemma.

Instead of using state funds to reduce the gap between wealthy and poor districts, she proposes, the state officials will send districts only what it estimates is enough aid to meet the standards New Jersey is drafting for its schools and students. And districts rich enough to meet the standards on their own may get no help at all from the state.

"Through a lack of any better measurement, we have reduced the goal of educational equity to spending parity only," Gov. Whitman said in her Jan. 11 State of the State Address. "We must stop chasing dollars and start creating scholars."

"Educational equity will only come when we commit ourselves to educational quality for all students. At the heart of our efforts are core curriculum standards."

Gov. Angus S. King Jr. of Maine, an Independent, voiced a similar theme when he outlined his legislative goals this year, emphasizing curriculum standards and arguing that "money is not the issue."

Education Commissioner Frank T. Brogan is sounding similar themes in Florida.

"If we continue to do what we've always done, we're going to get what we've always gotten," Mr. Brogan said. "It's time that we finally define what is important for young people to know and do and put that out for parents and children and teachers and school boards to see. And then we have to try to reinvent our school systems to see to it that every youngster achieves at the level we've set."

In presenting his legislative agenda, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin proposed mandatory high school exit examinations pegged to locally set standards.

Appeal of Technology

Expanded technology, meanwhile, has become a staple of state school-reform initiatives this year. Even some governors who are proposing overall cuts in school spending want to spend millions on educational technology.

Technology and standards, moreover, will command the spotlight at the summit Mr. Thompson has organized for March 26-27 in Palisades, N.Y. Documents prepared for the meeting argue that state and local standards spelling out what they should know will "help all students learn more by demanding higher student performance." (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

Technology, meanwhile, is lauded for its ability to "equalize access to the best instructional methods and materials for all students."

While other education issues facing governors, such as finance equity and school choice, are fraught with political pitfalls, curriculum standards are an idea that even governors who have declared war on state teachers' unions can use to portray themselves as education-friendly. Standards, backed up by tests, can also be promoted as holding teachers account-able for student performance.

Meanwhile, technology programs hold great appeal for politicians and taxpayers who have otherwise grown weary of new spending on schools. And politicians are eager to cast themselves as the force that will push schools into the information age.

'Enormous Possibilities'

Proponents of both approaches say that if they were properly implemented, they could help close the gap between poor and rich school districts.

"We are talking about a new vision of literacy, and we believe that all students can reach our standards," said Beverly Ann Chin, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, which will release a set of classroom standards next week.

Standards do not distinguish between poor and wealthy schools, supporters note; their students would shoot for the same goals.

"This is about describing the high expectations that we as teachers, parents, and community members feel all children need to be able to read, write, speak, and listen well," said Ms. Chin, an English professor at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Technology proponents offer a similar vision, saying that their efforts can open new avenues for children whose opportunities have been restricted by isolation or poverty. Satellite dishes can almost instantly expand the curriculum offerings of small, remote, and poor schools by beaming in advanced classes, they say, and computer networks will allow students to tap into vast libraries and new multimedia teaching tools.

"In the long run, there are some enormous possibilities," said Geoff Fletcher, the associate commissioner for curriculum and assessment at the Texas Education Agen-cy. "Increased telecommunications capabilities will certainly help level the playing field for schools and also may help at home."

"And this is not just about helping kids in poor schools," Mr. Fletcher added. "We see technology helping teachers in those schools to begin to think differently, too."

No Guarantees

But many observers are waiting to see whether these strategies will reach their full potential.

G. Alan Hickrod, a school-finance expert at Illinois State University in Normal, remarked that placing computers in classrooms does not guarantee that they will be used in innovative ways, and that adopting standards does not in itself necessarily lead to changes in teaching practices.

"Both of these approaches would broaden curriculum offerings, which has been one of the big equity problems," Mr. Hickrod said. "But it is a passive solution in the sense that unless you have a big commitment to seeing it through, it is only about making something available, and that doesn't necessarily provide students anything."

Finance experts argue that underfinanced schools have problems that will not be solved by a few computers. In addition, they say, employing new technology in such schools will cost more than some proponents realize, as antiquated buildings must be upgraded and teachers taught to use new tools--in systems that are often derided for how they manage money.

"When it comes to measuring the equity and adequacy of a state's education system, you can look at input measures like financing or output measures like student achievement," said Chris Hansen, a senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City. "But however you look at it, you cannot assume that a school that is technology-rich and resource-poor is as good as a school that is technology-rich and resource-rich."

A 'Sham'?

Gov. Whitman's approach has finance-equity activists especially concerned. Her critics contend that she is just using standards as a shield to lower school costs, turning an exercise that should focus on setting lofty goals into one of establishing a lowest common denominator.

The governor intends to use the standards to define the "thorough and efficient" education mandated by the New Jersey Constitution. The state, she argues, is only required to provide enough aid to allow districts to offer a curriculum that meets those standards, which will not cover many things educators defend as important, such as counseling and physical education. State officials contend that New Jersey districts spend $370 million a year on unspecified "excessive" programs and administrative costs.

"All this talk about standards is a sham," charged Steve Block, a project director for the Education Law Center in Newark, which brought the state's landmark finance-equity lawsuit.

"This is not an equity debate, it is a policy decision to maintain the 30 percent income-tax reduction that the governor made her top priority," he said. "To keep state expenditures at bare bones, the scheme they've come up with is to embrace standards that drive down spending in the state's wealthiest school districts."

"Only low standards are affordable," said Mark C. Smith, the superintendent of the affluent Westfield, N.J., school district, which the governor says has about $10 million in excessive spending in its $47 million budget. "A good education does require a certain level of financial support."

Mrs. Whitman has argued that her plan would improve schools.

Texans Add Up the Bill

In the long run, however, some finance-equity activists may find that school standards are the key to unlocking state coffers.

"We certainly support the standards movement," Mr. Block said. "But truth be told, if we had high standards that led to excellence, the cost would exceed the more than $500 million we think the equity case would require. With high standards, they would see the cost we're projecting as prudent instead of excessive."

In Texas, where state officials have adopted high standards and broad technology goals, school districts have already begun to estimate what it would cost to provide the equipment and programs that will be needed to allow students to meet the state benchmarks. The districts that are not able to pay for that level of service plan to take the state to court.

"The state is increasing its mandate on local schools," said Mr. Foster, whose group is one of several Texas school associations exploring the cost of meeting the state standards. "Everybody who has looked at it is absolutely convinced that meeting the standards would cost a lot more than is now being put into the system."

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