Chiefs Unanimously Endorse School 'Guarantees' Policy

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State superintendents of education last week approved a plan calling for state "guarantees" aimed at reducing the dropout rate to zero by the year 2000.

The ambitious policy statement passed by unanimous voice vote during the annual meeting here of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"No moral or sensible nation can dare write off a significant portion of its human assets in the way that is currently happening in this nation," said David W. Hornbeck, outgoing president of the council, during the Nov. 13-16 meeting.

The Maryland superintendent, whose vision helped shape the policy document, received a standing ovation from his peers.

But a number of chiefs said their states were not likely to pass legislation ensuring that "at risk" students receive the full set of guarantees called for by the council.

Some also questioned the wisdom of creating new legal entitlements in education that could precipitate a wave of court challenges by students dissatisfied with the quality of their schooling.

The plan approved by the chiefs urges states to provide 11 guarantees to students considered least likely to graduate from high school. These include:

Education programs as good as those in more successful schools.

Enrollment in a school that demonstrates "substantial and sustained" student progress.

Enrollment in a school with an "appropriately certified staff" that receives "continuous professional development."

Enrollment in a school with "systematically designed and delivered instruction of demonstrable effectiveness."

Enrollment in a school with safe and functional facilities.

A parent- and early-childhood-education program no later than age 4.

A written guide for teaching and learning for each student.

A program to allow families to participate as "partners" in their children's education.

Effective health and social services.

Information that would help identify at-risk students and report on school conditions and performance.

Procedures enabling students and their parents to ensure that the guarantees are met.

The chiefs also discussed model legislation that provides one way for states to carry out the guarantees. However, they did not vote on the statutory language.

How Realistic?

The guarantees represent "an unusual opportunity to change the direction of American education," by providing each student with the chance to succeed, said Franklin B. Walter, state superintendent in Ohio.

But he added that "ever since we started working on this, I have really wondered, in my own state," how realistic the policy statement is.

"I don't have the slightest idea," he said.

Ray Kilmer, interim commissioner of education in Colorado, said lawmakers there might pursue some aspects of the proposal but were unlikely to embrace "total, sweeping adoption" of its provisions.

Colorado cannot afford to fund full-day kindergarten for all students, he noted, let alone early-childhood education.

Richard A. Boyd, superintendent of education in Mississippi, said it would be "difficult" in his state as well to carry out all of the guarantees.

"Simply being a kid in our state puts you closer to being defined as 'at risk' than being in any other state," he said.

"That's a double whammy--a poor state trying to find the money to do a job that is more difficult to do here than anywhere."

And Frank B. Brouillet, schools chief in Washington State, argued that "without some kind of help from outside sources, such as the federal government," states like Mississippi "are not going to make it."

Public Education

In contrast, said Mr. Brouillet, a state with a relatively low poverty rate, such as Washington, faces a different problem: convincing lawmakers that at-risk children are everybody's responsibility.

"The general public has got to perceive this as important to them," he said. "You don't want a backlash" in which "the average citizen says, 'We're spending all our money on these kinds of kids, but what are you doing for my child?"'

Stephen S. Kaagan, Vermont superintendent of education, agreed with Mr. Brouillet's assessment.

"There's still a tremendous amount of consciousness-raising in Vermont as to what 'at risk' means," Mr. Kaagan noted. "A lot of work would have to be done before [lawmakers] would countenance this kind of entitlement legislation."

'Scare Me'

Mr. Kaagan and others said they also remained skeptical about enabling at-risk students to seek enforcement of the guarantees in court.

"With handicapped kids, when you got to legislation, you had to be very specific as to who they were," Mr. Kaagan said. "In this instance, it's going to be tougher."

"I believe in the entitlement," he continued. "I believe in the approach. But I'm just skeptical about its capacity to be implemented easily."

Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction in California, expressed similar concerns.

"I don't like to talk about guarantees," he said. "Legal strategies scare me."

In special education, Mr. Honig argued, the legal right to sue has resulted in uniform procedures designed more to avoid lawsuits than to benefit children.

In addition, he said, judges are ill equipped to design the kinds of educational remedies that are needed in such cases.

The California education chief said he would rather focus on state intervention aimed at improving whole schools. The chiefs' model legislation should have provided more incentives for schools to change, he said, and more ideas for replicating instructional strategies that work.

'Wonderful Idea'

Herbert J. Grover, superintendent of public instruction in Wisconsin, agreed that "the whole question of legal liability looms large, unless the language is properly structured."

"Having said that," he added,el10l"that shouldn't limit the moral imperative."

"The growth industry in Wisconsin right now is prisons," he said. Given that situation, he argued, a stronger focus on education as a means of preventing criminal behavior is a "sound investment."

Mr. Hornbeck of Maryland said the model legislation was written so that legal remedies would be the last avenue pursued by children and their families, after administrative hearings and other options had been exhausted. The legislation would also prohibit families from receiving monetary awards for damages.

"If it's necessary to go to the Supreme Court to access these rights, it will never work," he said.

What the policy statement really guarantees, Mr. Hornbeck argued, is the "right to a series of promising educational practices" that should result in fewer "pull out" programs, less tracking and labeling of students, and more qualified teachers.

And Thomas K. Gilhool, acting secretary of education in Pennsylvania, said a clear entitlement to high-quality education was a "wonderful idea."

"It's a measure and mark of the seriousness of the undertaking," he said.

But "I don't know" whether the Pennsylvania legislature would support the notion, he added.

If states do not embrace such ideas on their own, suggested Julius Chambers, executive director and chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, "then, like the Supreme Court in Brown/i> [v. Board of Education], the courts will do it."

"I hope that all states will eventually adopt the draft legislation that you have proposed," he told the chiefs in a speech here.

Most superintendents said the real heart of the policy statement is its emphasis on greater accountability for how all students perform.

"I think that we are entering a period now where taxpayers will want to see some results" from their investments in at-risk students, said Betty Castor, commissioner of education in Florida.

Her state is spending more than $100 million for dropout-prevention programs through its regular school-funding formula, she said, adding that "I think what will follow is accountability."

Verne A. Duncan, incoming president of the council, said he would continue the chiefs' focus on at-risk children in 1987-88 by emphasizing the need for parent and early-childhood education.

"I believe that this issue [of at-risk students] is of such magnitude and of such a crucial nature that it demands our attention and action as perhaps no other in the history of our organization," said Mr. Duncan, who is schools chief in Oregon.

"I am calling on all of us, as the nation's chief state school officers, to help create a national agenda for young children," he said.

Among Mr. Duncan's proposals are:

A public-education program to make people aware of the problem.

Development of a five-year action plan focused on at-risk youths.

Initiation of a study and recommendations on effective parent- and early-childhood-education programs that involve the schools.

Advocacy of federal legislation designed to address the multiple needs of at-risk children and their families.

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