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'Priding Ourselves on Local Control'

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By Karen Soule As the principal of four elementary schools in the Newfound Area, N.H., school district, my primary responsibility is to provide students with the educational opportunities that will develop their capacities to read, write, think, and speak, thus enabling them to become responsible and contributing members of our complex society.

We can only achieve these goals in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance, and communication. Equally important is fostering a love of learning that will carry on throughout a student's lifetime. It is awe-inspiring to think that my schools and other schools throughout America hold the future of our nation in their hands. That is why any avenue of assistance is explored to ensure that every student will receive the best public education possible.

New Hampshire is a state that prides itself on local control. This certainly has its advantages, but it can also have disadvantages. Here in the Newfound Area district, more than 90 percent of our school budget is provided by local property taxes. We receive only about 7 percent of our funding from the state and 2 percent from the federal government. We are not unique. Over the past few years, aid from the state and federal governments has been declining, a trend that is expected to continue. Each year at our annual school meeting, like it or not, money is a factor as we strive to move ahead educationally.

In spite of tight budget realities, our state and district are enacting reforms compatible with those taking place across the nation. For example, until this year, our district did not provide public kindergarten. More than 30 percent of the students in my district entering 1st grade in 1995 did not have any kindergarten experience. (New Hampshire is the only state that does not require students to attend kindergarten.) In 1995, voters finally saw fit to support public kindergarten, after several years of work to convince them of its merits.

The state of New Hampshire has been at the forefront of education-reform initiatives, setting a clear direction for New Hampshire to improve an already recognized successful effort. The legislature enacted the Statewide Improvement and Assessment Program in 1993, which allowed us to develop statewide K-12 curriculum frameworks. These frameworks establish benchmarks of what students should know and be able to do in English/language arts, math, science, and social studies. We have also developed a statewide assessment program to measure what students know and are able to do at grades 3, 6, and 10. We expect to be able to use these assessment results as a basis for making curriculum and instructional improvements at the local level.

Given the fact that New Hampshire has already recognized and is using education initiatives to set a clear direction for our children's futures, the federal Goals 2000 funding complements our efforts to improve teaching and learning, helping to build a better future for New Hampshire.

Rather than take advantage of these extra resources, New Hampshire made a decision early on not to accept federal Goals 2000 money. Some held the misconception that if the state accepted this funding, the federal government would be running our schools. Others believed that taking part in Goals: 2000 would take away our local control of schools.

New Hampshire now has submitted for review a draft application to participate, and has received verbal acceptance that includes assurances of New Hampshire's retaining ultimate control over how the money is spent. Our state will accept Goals 2000 money only if, among other stipulations, we will not be subject to federal review of student achievement; we can terminate our participation without penalty; and our standards are not subject to review by any federal board panel.

Of the $393,000 in federal money for New Hampshire, $75,000 would be used to design a state technology plan to promote high standards for all students and no less than 80 percent of the remaining funds would be awarded to local school districts.

Given the fact that only 2 percent of the Newfound Area district budget is federally funded, why are the Goals 2000 funds important? These funds would go a long way to help my district develop a long-term technology plan, provide funds particularly at the elementary level to begin to truly integrate technology into our curriculum, and assist us in training staff and purchasing more technology, based on the needs of our district. Yes, one has to write lengthy proposals to receive these funds, but from past experience, the efforts are worth it. For instance, our district has received more than $16,000 over the past four years for curriculum development through the Eisenhower Math and Science funds.

I am not a politician. I am an educator. And I will find the time to do what needs to be done to see that students in my schools are afforded every educational opportunity they deserve.

It is not too late for New Hampshire to accept the Goals 2000 money. The state legislature recently passed a bill that said New Hampshire would apply for this federal assistance. Ultimately, though, the decision is in the hands of the governor.

If the decision stands not to accept Goals 2000 money, it means that the students in New Hampshire will not be exposed to their fullest educational opportunities. And I, therefore, would not be doing my job to ensure that they are receiving the best education that the available funding can give them.

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