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Revamp Local School Boards, ECS Report Urges

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San Antonio

State officials should consider fundamental changes in how local school boards operate, according to a report released here last week at the annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States.

The ECS report, "Bending Without Breaking," urges decentralization of school management, including new roles for state education departments, the provision of funding directly to schools, school-level collective bargaining, and expanded charter school and voucher experiments.

But the document builds its recommendations around the premise that district school boards have become such a serious impediment to school improvement that state officials might consider disbanding them in favor of new boards with new roles.

For example, local boards could sign performance agreements with individual schools. In turn, schools would have to publish their budgets and achievement goals.

"It is hard to imagine how a board established to run schools directly could adapt smoothly to such a profound change," the report says.

New boards could be phased in immediately or over time, the report suggests.

"There's no doubt this is controversial," Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the ECS, said in an interview. "But one thing I've tried to do is get ECS to lose some of its timidity and take some controversial stances."

'Myopic' View?

Indeed, there was no shortage of reaction to the 34-page document.

"The characterization of local boards is myopic and didn't grasp the role local boards can play in getting high-achieving schools," said Michael A. Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. He faulted the report for not discussing how boards can promote higher expectations and community outreach.

"I could see where there will be some negative reaction," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Maryland state school board, "but it becomes a point of departure for people to talk about new ways to see things."

The report contends that 40 years of talk about greater flexibility in schools has resulted in regulations that make schools "less like communities and more like government agencies."

Aside from Mr. Thompson, the three other Republican governors who signed the report--George Bush of Texas, John Engler of Michigan, and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania--did not formally endorse the document in its entirety.

Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said the report was right to advocate more flexible school management. He said he doubted, however, that the public, especially people without children in schools, would support such drastic changes in school boards' missions.

"They're asking people to deprive themselves of basic democracy," Mr. Grumet said.

A Bolder Role

But if Gov. Thompson gets his way, the ECS will continue to lob similar bombs into the school-reform debate.

"You can take bold action or fall back and protect the status quo," he said in his final speech as chairman last week. "Without ECS, I don't see how reform can happen." Based in Denver, the group is a clearinghouse on state-level education policy for governors, legislators, and other policymakers.

Before stepping down, Mr. Thompson also announced the formation of an ECS foundation to support reform projects. The Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia, has contributed $200,000 for school-to-work activities by the foundation.

Mr. Thompson also downplayed any dissension among GOP governors that might flare up at this month's National Governors' Association meeting in Puerto Rico, where the governors are scheduled to deal with the details of a new entity designed to promote strong state education standards.

"There's opposition, but I think it's the right thing," Mr. Thompson said.

But other governors here said they would resist outside intervention and advice. "Any attempt by the governors or the NGA to rope the state of Texas into some kind of national education agenda, I will vote against," Mr. Bush told reporters. "I don't mind having a scorecard to determine how we're doing. But we're different, and proudly so."

Parents Seek 'Minor Tuning'

Also last week, the ECS released the results of a survey of 2,700 parents and from focus groups across the country showing that people are split over how much school change they support.

While almost all of the respondents wanted some change, 52 percent said they wanted "only minor tuning."

Forty-one percent called for "a complete overhaul."

In either case, there is also a strong belief that reforms, "like countless others in the past, will come and go," the group said.

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