In Poll, Slim Majority of Board Chiefs Oppose Choice; 62% for Decentralizing

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A majority of local school-board presidents oppose parental-choice measures, support greater on-site autonomy for schools, and feel the field's biggest problem is "lack of financial support," according to a new national survey.

The survey was conducted by the National Center for Educational Information, a private research firm. Its officials last week said the study offers the first national profile of school-board leaders' views on reform.

The report, written by the firm's director, Emily Feistritzer, also provides comparisons of the board officials' responses with those from similar surveys of other school leaders and the general public.

One goal of the survey project, Ms. Feitritzer said, was to give school-board presidents the chance to voice their opinions, so that "they might be held accountable for what they think will make a difference in school reform today."

"I think it's time we held these people's feet to the fire," she said last week.

The survey, which was funded by a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department, was based on recent responses from 1,217 school-board presidents or chairmen, who were asked to complete a 52-page questionnaire.

The school-board leaders are far less enthusiastic about parental choice than is the general public, the survey found. The ncei used responses from the 1987 Gallup poll on education and its own previous surveys of other school officials as points of comparison on the choice issue.

In the Gallup poll, 71 percent of adults--and 76 percent of parents of public-school children--had said parents should have the right to choose schools.

But only 36 percent of the school-board presidents said they supported parental choice, and 51 percent said they opposed it. The remaining 13 percent did not have an opinion.

In a 1987 survey of superintendents and principals, the ncei had found greater opposition to choice, with 68 percent of superintendents and 60 percent of principals opposed.

Only one group of presidents in the survey sample--those in cities with populations of 500,000 or more--appeared to favor choice. Of that group--which represented 21 of the respondents in the survey--53 percent said they supported parental choice. The samples of smaller-city, suburban, and rural board chiefs found half to two-thirds of each group opposed.

The sampling techniques may not permit accurate comparisons among these groups, however, according to Ms. Feistritzer.

Those most opposed to choice in the overall sample were presidents who had served on a board for 10 years or more. Of the 316 in that category, 57 percent said they opposed parental choice.

Jeremiah Floyd, an associate director of the National School Boards Association, said it was not surprising that presidents are not inclined to favor parental choice because school boards often have to "bear the brunt" of controversies surrounding the issue.

"When parents don't get the choice they want, they go directly to the school board and raise hell," he said.

Despite the board presidents' op8position, choice is becoming ever more popular as a tool for school reform, Ms. Feistritzer said.

She cited that phenomenon as a dramatic example of a key conclusion of her study: that presidents feel the authority of school boards has decreased.

Fifty-eight percent of the school-board presidents surveyed said they felt their board's authority had decreased. And, of those, 89 percent said their authority had been usurped by the state government.

The survey also showed that 40 percent of the presidents were "somewhat" or "very dissatisfied" with their relationship with state education departments. More than half of the respondents said state school officials had the most influence over local boards' decisionmaking.

Some 62 percent of the presidents said they felt the state should have less influence in improving schools. By contrast, 55 percent of the general public said in the Gallup poll that state government should have more influence.

School officials, board presidents, and the public, however, all favor increasing "local government influence" over schools, the various surveys indicate.

The board presidents also strongly supported allowing individual schools more autonomy, with 64 percent in favor of allowing more flexibility in decisionmaking at the school-building level.

At the same time, only 30 percent said they supported giving teachers more decisionmaking authority in running schools.

When asked to choose from a list of possible reforms those they believed would most improve the nation's educational system, presidents offered the following responses:

84 percent favored requiring students to perform at one grade level before being allowed to go on to the next.

75 percent said adults who have experience in careers other than education should be recruited into teaching. But fewer than half supported recruiting managers from other careers into school administration.

63 percent said parents should be more involved in school operations. But 79 percent also said parents have "the right amount" of influence over curriculum now.

When asked what the biggest problem facing schools today is, the presidents said "lack of financial support." The adults in the Gallup poll had listed, by comparison, "use of drugs" and "lack of discipline."

Demographically, the profile of school-board presidents resembles4that of the board members they work with, the ncei survey suggests. But it is less like that of superintendents across the country.

Married, White, and Male

Ninety-seven percent of the presidents surveyed were white; 71 percent were male; and the majority were in their late 40's, married, and raising children at home.

There are more female school-board presidents, however, than there are female superintendents, the survey indicates. Twenty-nine percent of the presidents polled were women; only 4 percent of superintendents nationwide are women. A 1988 nsba survey found that 39 percent of school-board members are female.

Vol. 08, Issue 24

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