Illinois Seeks Ways to Cut Red Tape in Education

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Springfield, Ill--The Illinois state government has completed its first step toward modifying and in some cases eliminating programs in the schools which are mandated by state laws and regulations.

The state Legislature's School Problems Commission recently completed public hearings on the volatile issue, and will now develop legislative proposals aimed at lightening the burden imposed on school systems by programs that the state orders but does not fully pay for.

Such mandated programs run the gamut from daily physical-education classes and special training for the handicapped to teaching patriotism and "moral courage." Some of the programs, particularly in education for the handicapped and disadvantaged, are based on federal laws that must be interpreted and adapted at the state and local levels.

The deregulation effort predates steps taken this year by the Reagan Administration to simplify federal rules and consolidate several federal education programs into a system of block grants. State officials admit they do not understand how the federal changes, which go into effect in the fall of 1982, will affect state laws and programs.

The Illinois legislature is not likely to act before next spring, however, because the State Board of Education, which has been concerned about a "precipitous approach to a sensitive public-policy issue with broad educational ramifications," has announced that it will undertake a study of its own.

Heated and Divisive Issue

With powerful forces lining up for and against deregulation, and with Illinois facing an election and crucial budget decisions, the question of what should be required of local schools promises to be one of the most heated and divisive issues lawmakers will deal with when they return to session in January.

Donald G. Gill began to talk about "de-mandating" the system soon after becoming state superintendent of education last year.

Governor James R. Thompson added his support last spring when, in announcing a new round of cuts in his 1982 budget, he recommended combining state categorical programs into a block grant for districts, to help shield them from what he described as inflexible, costly, and intrusive government regulations.

Last spring, the legislature's School Problems Commission--which includes Mr. Gill and a representative of the Illinois Education Association (iea), the state's most potent teachers' lobby and a strong opponent of reducing mandates--was delegated to study the issue and provide recommendations for legislative action.

Despite the state board's desire to move cautiously, its chief executive officer, Mr. Gill, has indicated strong support for reducing mandated programs.

"Complaints have been registered for years about over-regulation in vocational education and all the other kinds of education that come out of these categorical approaches," says Mr. Gill. "It stems from the perennial complaint that government makes lots of demands and doesn't provide the resources for local agencies to be able to follow through."

Mr. Gill adds: "You begin to look into these things to determine if you need a law or a regulation, and the first thing that hits you is that there are requirements in place that more than likely you can do without and not impair the quality of programs and, in some cases, perhaps allow the local agencies to do a better job."

But others are not so sure.

Led by teachers' unions, parents, and organizations that have emotional arguments on their side, opponents of deregulation contend that the educational mandates are intended to protect minorities (such as certain racial groups, the handicapped, and the disadvantaged) and are as necessary today as they were when they were adopted in the 1970's.

"I'm convinced that if the state backs out of mandates, there will be pressure at the taxpayer level and school boards will respond to that," says John Ryor, iea executive director and former president of the National Education Association. "They will look around, and if they don't see a grand constituency for some program, out it goes."

Mr. Ryor fears that school integration, for example, could suffer such a fate in the absence of definitive state directives. "Desegregation was dumped at the doorstep of public education," he says, "and it's a valuable goal. Society is multiracial, so it is important for kids to learn and grow up together."

In Springfield, the state capital, the school system has desegregated classrooms under court order. And Superintendent Donald Miedema concedes the effort could be stymied without a mandate requiring it.

Nevertheless, Mr. Miedema joins other local administrators who believe that some regulations could be curtailed or adjusted to save money without endangering educational opportunity or excellence.

A recent state-board study of the cost of mandated programs in 1979-80 found that the state paid only 54 percent of the cost of provid6ing transportation to regular students; 71 percent of the total expenses for busing vocational-education students; and 74 percent of the expense of transporting special-education students.

In special-education programs, the state contribution ranged from only 34.5 percent of the total costs for personnel to 43.6 percent for private tuition costs incurred by local districts that send severely handicapped younsters to institutions outside the district.

Approximately one-third of the expense of driver-education programs was provided by the state, the study found.

Fight for Deregulation

Armed with such figures, local school administrators have been coming to Springfield to fight for deregulation.

"We support Gill's efforts," says Theodore Rockafellow, superintendent of the Moline public schools. "With declining revenues, there has got to be a compensating decline in what they require us to do. We simply can't meet those mandates if the state continues to underfund its obligations."

Administrators and school board members are setting their sights on a number of programs they believe should be modified. Driver education heads the list, followed by the daily physical-education requirement.

But special-interest groups are already mustering their case against deregulation."Taking in-car experience out of driver education," contends Mr. Ryor of the iea, "is tantamount to teaching a child to eat without a knife, spoon, or fork--just showing him pictures."

"And I would suggest," he adds, "that an organized system of physical education is as important to the body as an organized study of its basis is to the mind."

No deregulation proposal is more controversial than that which would loosen rules governing special education. "It is not realistic to 'de-mandate' special education," says Mr. Rockafellow, "and I hope they don't do that. But they could cut back on some of the regulations, such as on class sizes or the required meetings on individualized education plans (iep's), and we could serve the same number of kids with fewer teachers."

The cries of parents who oppose such tinkering with special services for handicapped children are strongly echoed by Frederick Weintraub, assistant director of the national Council for Exceptional Children.

It is important for parents and schools to set a common agenda, Mr. Weintraub argues, and equally important to continue to assess a child's placement--both of which are goals of periodic iep sessions.

"You should not have a child in a program that is not working or one that has worked and the child no longer needs," he says. "The decisions we make about handicapped children are among the most significant in a child's life. It is not comparable to deciding whether Johnny should be in the Bluebird or the Red Robin reading group."

Vol. 01, Issue 09

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