ECS To Focus on Increasing Public Support for Reform

By Lynn Olson & Lonnie Harp — September 09, 1992 4 min read

CINCINNATI--Educators and policymakers meeting here at the annual conference of the Education Commission of the States have agreed to target the widespread public skepticism that many say is undermining school reform.

Concern over the gap between education experts, who are calling for radical changes in schooling, and members of the public, who frequently think their own schools are just fine, was a key theme of last month’s meeting here.

Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who assumed the chairmanship of the ECS, announced at the meeting that he would make a drive for greater public support for reform the focus of his term.

As evidence of the growing concern among lawmakers, a coalition of educators, corporate executives, and government officials unveiled plans to launch a nationwide media campaign this fall designed to create a climate in which individual state- reform efforts will have a better chance of succeeding.

The Educational Excellence Partnership--formed by the Business Roundtable, the National Governors’ Association, the U.S. Education Department, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Alliance of Business--will spend $5 million on the five-year advertising campaign soliciting citizen support for reform.

Sponsors hope the effort will have a significant impact on public awareness. “We expect that $1 million a year in hard cash to leverage at least $40 million a year in exposure on the issue of education reform,’' said Christopher T. Cross, the executive director of the Roundtable’s education initiative.

“Our goal here,’' he added, “is to help both create a sense of public concern about the need for, as well as the support of, education reform and then to mobilize people into the cause.’'

‘Credibility Problem’

During a session at the ECS meeting, Governor Bayh said politicians face a “credibility problem’’ when it comes to schooling. People do not believe that if they give an extra dollar to the system, it will translate into “anywhere near’’ a dollar’s worth of improvements, he suggested.

Particularly when resources are scarce, “people are interested in hanging on to what they have today,’' he observed. “It’s hard to talk about change.’'

But policymakers also acknowledged that they have not been clear enough in explaining to voters what proposed school reforms mean.

That task has been made more difficult as reforms have grown in complexity. New forms of assessment, ungraded classrooms, and other practices now being included in reform packages differ radically from the schools that voters knew as children, Mr. Bayh and others noted.

“We as leaders must make the case with the public that education really is the cornerstone, not only for economic development, but also for the quality of our lives,’' Mr. Bayh said.

“Certainly, every American needs to understand that there is a link between education and the economic well-being of his or her family,’' he continued. “But the public needs to know that there is a connection that goes beyond their pocketbooks.’'

Policy or Administration

While ECS members discussed how to improve understanding of school reform in the public at large, the meeting here also wrestled with issues relating to the management of education. In a session devoted to revamping local school boards, for example, board members and state officials talked about where to draw the line between education policy and administration.

Many school board members have associated their policymaking role with regulatory control, session participants suggested, rather than with the current emphasis on goal-setting and long-range planning.

But there was little agreement on where board members’ policymaking role ends and the responsibilities of the superintendent begin.

“What is policy to some people may be administration to others,’' argued Thomas Shannon, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, adding that board members are responding to many recent reform recommendations.

But others contended that board members and their associations could move faster.

Assemblywoman Barbara M. Clark of New York said local school boards have failed to debate such issues as curriculum reforms and increased parental involvement.

State school boards associations are often seen as hindering such efforts, she said. “I don’t see the input that ought to happen about how we educate our children.’'

Still others agreed that the role of school boards must change, even if it is in response to recommendations from outsiders.

“It’s time to say this is a new day,’' said Thelma A. Jackson, a school board member and past president of the Washington State School Directors Association.

“Even if we come through the back door, at least we’re there,’' Ms. Jackson said.

Also during the meeting, Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois was named chairman-elect of the ECS for 1992-93. He will become the ECS chairman in 1993-94.