Institute To Train State Lawmakers in School Reform

By Peter Schmidt — September 05, 1990 4 min read

NASHVILLE--Embarking on an ambitious long-term effort to empower state legislatures as agents of school reform, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Educational Excellence Network brought lawmakers from 15 states together here this summer for an institute on new educational policy.

Sponsors said the conference, held at Vanderbilt University shortly before the annual meetings of the N.C.S.L. and the National Governors’ Association, was aimed at helping legislatures avoid being left behind as governors and state school boards jockey to assume lead roles in the drive to improve schools.

Counting among its faculty several leaders of the education-reform movement, the institute was attended by a bipartisan, six-member delegation from each of the 15 states. Those participating included both members of legislative committees on education and other key lawmakers, such as budget-committee chairmen, who organizers said have been excluded from most education-policy planning but nonetheless have a crucial role in reform measures.

John L. Myers, director of the NCSL’s education program, said states that participated in the institute were selected based on their willingness to advance reform next year in at least two of three areas: restructuring, parent “enabling,” and assessment and accountability.

The summer institute is “just the tip of the iceberg” of a broader joint effort by the Excellence Network and the N.C.S.L., according to Chester E. Finn Jr., director of the network. Known as “Better Education Through Informed Legislation,” the project will provide follow-up technical assistance to institute participants and disseminate handbooks, videotapes, and other instructional materials to legislators in all 50 states.

Attending the institute were delegations of legislators and education experts from Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington State, and Wyoming.

Although several of these states already had implemented significant reforms in one or more of the areas addressed, Mr. Myers said, very few states have attempted reform in all three areas. “Most states are back in a position where they need to look at an across-the-board, coordinated, major education-reform effort,” he observed.

“Legislators have been frustrated,” he said. “Many were part of the legislatures in 1983, 1984, and 1985 when they passed some major changes, and just five years after that people are coming back and saying ‘Oh, that didn’t work.”’

“There is also frustration around the question of whether schools have improved dramatically, and what is needed for the future,” Mr. Myers added. “Many state legislators feel that educators have not provided them with enough answers in this respect.”

Mr. Myers said the single most popular topic among conference participants was the idea of parent enabling, which he defined to include both school-choice programs and efs to involve parents more inschool decisionmaking.

Institute organizers had considered adding discussions of school finance to the conference agenda, he noted, but dropped the idea after finding it sparked little interest among several of the foundations funding the effort.

“Many foundations feel that they have addressed this area and have backed away from thinking finance is the area to get things done,” Mr. Myers said.

All 50 states were invited to send delegations to the institute, and 19 applied, the NCSL official said. Among the 15 states selected, the Midwest was heavily represented at the request of the Chicago-basedFoundation, which provided part of the funding for the institute.

Also sponsoring the BETIL project are the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, William H. Donner, and Gates foundations.

Mr. Finn said the two organizas put together the BETIL project because “we felt that legislatures had not had their fair share of attention, even though they are awfully important factors in education policymaking.”

Describing himself as “hugely dissatisfied with the pace of school reform,” Mr. Finn said the summer institute was designed to empower states “in an intellectual, policymaking sense, to add to their arsenal of knowledge and ideas about some urgent reform issues.”

State legislatures should be regarded as “the first team in education reform” and “the ultimate school board,” Mr. Finn said. He nothat they provide the largest share of public-school revenues--a national average of slightly more than 50 percent, according to U.S. Education Department figures--and are growing in power in comparison with state education commissions and boards.

Mr. Myers said the BETIL project was needed because the workload of legislators “exploded” in size and complexity during the past decade.

One week after the summer institute, legislators from all 50 states gathered in Nashville for the N.C.S.L.'s annual conference and were told by representatives of the N.G.A. and the White House that state and local officials would bear the responsibility for meeting the 10-year goals drafted by the governors and President Bush at last year’s education summit.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Institute To Train State Lawmakers in School Reform