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Cut The Red Tape

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As President Bush and the nation's governors prepared to meet this month to follow up the education summit, they heard hundreds of reform ideas. Among them were proposals for new programs, new money, and, consequently, new regulations. But giving more power to bureaucracies or state capitals will not improve our education system. That can only be accomplished through reforms that deregulate the schools.

Schools are bound by literally hundreds of rules and regulations with which they must comply or face the loss of funding. Regulation means "red tape,'' paperwork, and bureaucracy. It is the enemy of efficiency in industry, and it has caused the downfall of American education.

Teachers are all too familiar with needless regulations that hamper teaching. In New Jersey, for example, preschool classrooms for at-risk students are required by law to have bathrooms. In one town, classrooms without bathrooms were available, and aides were available to accompany children down the hall and prevent them from roaming. The local superintendent applied for a waiver to the bathroom rule, citing costs of $100,000 to install tiny lavatories in each classroom. The waiver was denied, and the money was spent on the needless bathrooms instead of on education.

At the Federal level, rules say that only Chapter 1 eligible students are entitled to the use of Chapter 1 funds. Anything funded directly by Chapter 1 is inaccessible to non-Chapter 1 students. Because of these rules, computers paid for by Chapter 1 can go idle for days while Chapter 1 students are busy elsewhere. Because laws governing the use of bilingual, vocational, and handicapped education funds specify how and under what conditions they can be used, districts cannot experiment or consolidate programs for effectiveness.

Teachers also know how state and local testing requirements and controls on curriculum impede their ability to tailor their teaching to the needs of their students. This problem is most apparent in low-income, inner-city areas, where bureaucracies are largest. Not only do teachers have little autonomy, but they often earn less than the clerks at the central office.

Opponents of deregulation argue that government controls guarantee consistency and ensure compliance. But education reformers pressing for less regulation and more local control argue convincingly that a school's success depends on strong community involvement and support.

Deregulation serves three essential purposes. First, it loosens state and Federal restrictions on education spending, so that school districts have greater flexibility to set funding priorities. Second, it gives teachers and administrators more power to make decisions at the school-building level, allowing individual schools to respond to the diverse needs of their own student body. Finally, it shrinks bureaucracies, with the money saved going to the schools.

But simply erasing regulations from the books will do little to improve teacher professionalism or student achievement. Teachers need to be given a say in school governance, and parents need to be given a choice of schools. Schoolbased management allows money to flow to the school and the school to be responsible for governing decisions.

Choice creates the incentive for schools to work with their communities and involves parents directly in the education of their children. Parents and teachers are at odds today-- parental concerns cannot be addressed by teachers because teachers do not have the authority to respond. Parental input is an anomaly, because input is meaningless when no decision can be made. School-based management and choice programs reunite parents and teachers and make schools accountable to their communities.

States should be free to pursue choice plans. Urban areas may want to include private schools in the list of options to give at-risk children more opportunities. Rural areas may want to pursue schools-within-schools. And still other areas may be content with districtwide magnet programs involving just the public schools. But whatever the choice, when parents have the opportunity to pick among diverse schools, and teachers control their own classrooms, schools perform better.

Governors who seek to raise taxes to pay for educators' salary hikes have been largely unsuccessful. But some governors have been wiser, proposing to give schools greater spending flexibility in return for greater accountability. These measures enjoy wide support, and if adopted they would remove rules that prevent innovation and experimentation. Other promising state proposals would allow school systems to experiment with merit-pay plans, bilingual education funds, and programs for the disadvantaged.

Proposals for deregulation at the Federal level would grant states "waivers'' from Federal guidelines and allow Chapter 1 money to be used innovatively to better serve affected students. Others would remove financial barriers to districtwide open-enrollment plans. These efforts, however, face stiff opposition from some policymakers who are unwilling to leave educating to the schools.

The schools are overregulated. As national leaders consider removing the burden of unnecessary regulations they should be open to advice from local communities on how best to serve the nation's students. Choice and school-based management should top the list of reforms. These changes in policy can command the attention of policymakers and serve to rid the nation's educators of government intervention.

Jeanne Allen is an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and editor of Education Update.

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