'Bandits' say Red Tape Snarled Reform Project
Washington--When the Education Department joined the National Governors' Association two years ago in a project designed to boost the efficiency of reform, both promised the school districts involved that they would get greater freedom from regulation in return for progress.
But last week, as superintendents and principals from the 16 districts marked the project's midway point at a meeting here, they said that the government's side of the bargain had not been met.
In fact, the school leaders said, regulations and requirements at both the state and federal levels have increased rather than decreased over the two-year period, forcing many of them to become "educational bandits" in order to remove red tape.
"The governors and the state boards have had a 'proactive' agenda," said Harry Galinsky, superintendent of schools in Paramus, N.J. "And the action has been more regulations, with little or no flexibility.''
The project's regulatory-relief agreement was loosely framed, most participants said, existing more in principle than in fact. And only a blanket exemption, they added, could have shielded their schools from the torrent of regulation that has accompanied reform's "second wave.''
Robert L. Henley, superintendent of schools in Independence, Mo., said that "the new regulations are looked upon as the 'good reforms,' but they are still regulations."
"We may be dealing with more regulations now," he said, "than in the past."
The leaders here represented districts chosen because of their exemplary track records to test proposals from the n.g.a.'s 1986 report on school reform, Time for Results.
They gathered here, along with federal and state officials, to share their progress reports in a small hotel conference room just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
Most of them cited regulation--the intended focus of the project--as the main obstacle to their efforts.
When Time for Results was released, Lamar Alexander, then Gov4ernor of Tennessee, said: "The governors are ready for some good, old-fashioned horse trading with the districts. We'll regulate less if schools and school districts will produce better results."
Later, when the n.g.a. and the Education Department announced their joint project at a November 1986 press conference, Richard P. Mills, then education assistant to Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, said the goal was to see if state or federal regulations presented obstacles to reform.
In addition to New Jersey, Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah are participating in the project, which is expected to run through 1991.
As the undertaking was described at that first press conference, the Education Department would help districts cope with federal regulations and the states would do the same with state regulation.
"A partnership like what was promised simply has not happened," said Mr. Galinsky.
As an example, Mr. Galinsky offered the case of his preschool initiative designed to help children who are behind their peers in social and academic skills catch up before beginning school.
The special early-childhood classes his district tried to offer such children, he said, almost fell victim to a state requirement that each classroom with kindergartners or younger pupils contain its own bathroom.
The measure was intended to prevent small children from roaming the hallways unescorted. But in this case, Mr. Galinsky said, it almost killed the program.
Paramus had five empty classrooms to accommodate the program, but none with a toilet.
"I arranged to have aides available for those classes, so that a child could be escorted to and from the bathrooms," Mr. Galinsky explained. The cost of installing one toilet would have been $20,000.
Mr. Galinsky's appeal for a waiver from the state commissioner's office was denied, however.
He said he had to go to the school board and ask for an additional $100,000 to install the toilets before the program could be initiated.
Mr. Galinsky said he also found New Jersey's bilingual- and vocational-education regulations cumbersome.
And he scorned the "excitement" generated by the state's attempted takeover of the Jersey City school district as "running against the grain of what we have been talking about in making true changes."
"Most reforms have been accompanied by bureaucratic setups," he complained.
Undersecretary of Education Linus Wright told the group that increased regulation was characteristic of the reform movement nationwide.
"So far, all education reform has been process-oriented, rather than result-driven," Mr. Wright said.
When asked by one participant if regulations at the federal level would ever be eased, the undersecretary said that "I've been told no, but you don't always have to take no as an answer."
He reminded the group that it would take Congressional action to ease most regulations.
Some Gain Flexibility
Not all of the superintendents and principals had experienced this increased regulatory burden. Representatives of two Utah districts--Provo and Salt Lake City--said they had gained greater flexibility by taking part in a special block-grant experiment in their state.
Gov. Norman H. Bangerter sponsored the plan, which gained legislael10ltive approval this year. It has allowed five districts to receive their state aid in block grants--free of any restrictions on how to spend it. The Governor has vowed to expand the program if tests show that student progress improves in the pilot districts.
John Bennion, superintendent of the Salt Lake City public schools, said the experiment had allowed him to "give the principal all the room needed to achieve certain goals."
Mr. Galinsky of New Jersey said he had envisioned a similar flexibility when he entered into then.g.a. project.
"At a time when we are saying that there is more than one way to get the job done," he said, "the states have been painting everyone with the same brush of regulations."
"We were selected to participate in the project because we are proven leaders with good track records," said the Paramus superintendent. "What's the down side in giving a group like this unusual flexibility to get some breakthroughs?"
'Between Two Extremes'
But Marla Ucelli, Governor Kean's current education assistant, questioned whether the intent of the original compact between the districts and the governors went beyond the waiving of some individual rules.
"We've never made the leap from overcoming specific problems, like the bathroom requirement, to saying 'we are going to pull out all the stops,"' she said. "Maybe we are teetering between two extremes."
Many of the district representatives said they had been able to get individual waivers for certain requirements.
Everette Hawks, principal of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., said that when he had had a problem with a rule on class time, he wrote a letter, and "it was handled."
Mr. Hawks said that because of the cooperation between the governor's office, the state board, and the school, "reform is afoot."
"It is no longer the 'R' word," he said of reform.
Others agreed that relaxing regulations--whether or not it has happened--had been the crux of the agreement they entered into. Their districts do not receive additional funds for their reform projects from the state, the n.g.a., or the Education Department, they pointed out.
The Education Department has provided some technical assistance to the districts and is largely responsible for bringing their leaders together periodically.
But some attending the meeting last week said that may not be enough. They were considering soliciting private funds from a foundation or corporation to help in specific areas, such as program evaluations.
One superintendent said that the governors "may have been naive" to believe that they could easily remove deeply imbedded regulations to facilitate the Time for Results project.
And Mr. Henley of Missouri pointed out that many of the newer regulations were pushed by the governors themselves.
But others suggested that the project's focus should include state boards and legislatures.
Calling South Carolina "a legislative state," John Tillotson, interim superintendent of the Spartanburg school district, said that "there is a need to move beyond the governor's office and work with legislative staff."
Jim Rollins, superintendent of schools in Springdale, Ark., called that "a vital point."
"We need to assist the legislature to understand what the governors wanted to talk about four or five years ago," he said.
Still others said that paring back regulations simply cannot be done.
"We've been trying for years-- certainly throughout the Reagan Administration--to get regulations reduced at all levels," said James Wilsford, superintendent of the Orangeburg, S.C., public schools. "I'm convinced that it can't be done."
Vol. 08, Issue 12