Unexpectedly Little Interest Found In State Offers To Waive Key Rules

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By Lynn Olson

When the nation's governors adopted Time for Results in 1986, they proposed some "old-fashioned horse-trading."

"We'll regulate less," then-Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said, "if schools and school districts will produce better results."

Since then, more than 20 states have adopted "waiver" provisions that enable schools to request relief from regulations that stand in the way of change. Waivers can be sought in a variety of areas, ranging from personnel requirements, to curriculum, to length of the school day.

Policymakers expected that after years of complaining about excessive mandates from above, educators would jump at the chance to do things differently. But at both the state and district levels, officials are reporting far fewer requests for waivers than they had anticipated. And the requests they have received cover relatively minor rules and regulations.

In 1988, for example, Maine appropriated money so that 10 schools could redesign their programs from top to bottom. Since then, state officials have not received a single waiver request.

Massachusetts supplied funds for seven schools to "restructure" their programs in June 1988. The state has granted one waiver since then.

The reasons for such an underwhelming response are complicated, according to observers. They include skepticism among educators that waiver requests will be taken seriously, a shortage of creative ideas that would require exemptions from current practice, and locally imposed constraints.

Waivers may still be a useful tool even though they have not been enthusiastically embraced, experts contend. But, they say, the obstacles help shed light on the problems of limited deregulation--particularly in the absence of other incentives that encourage schools to change.

One of the most basic problems, experts said last week, is that many educators disinued trust the offer of regulatory relief.

"Teachers and educators in general don't really believe that the door has been opened," notes Bruce Goldberg, co-director of the Center for Restructuring at the American Federation of Teachers. "They think there's got to be a catch somewhere. So there's a somewhat dissident stance toward something that everyone desires."

Often, teachers worry that waivers will be temporary, experts say, and that they will find themselves in trouble later on when state or district leadership changes.

In other cases, school-board policies, local tradition, and union contracts may be more stifling than state mandates.

"In fact, most of the things that constrain experimentation at the local level are locally imposed," asserts Robert B. Schwartz, a former education aide to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.

"There's a lot of chatter about deregulation," he says, "but my impression is that, when push comes to shove, it is at least as likely to be conditions agreed to in the local collective-bargaining contract that teachers, in particular, see as problems which need to be circumvented."

Union and school officials in some districts are trying to address such concerns.

In Dade County, Fla., for example, 138 schools have been given the go-ahead to request waivers from district policies and the union contract as part of a school-based-management program.

Since the initiative began in 1986, more than 300 waivers have been approved, according to Pat Tornillo, president of United Teachers of Dade. Most have focused on language in the union contract.

Among other things, the union has enabled teachers in specific schools to give up their planning periods, work longer hours for no additional pay, and evaluate their peers.

'Mythical Rules'

But Dade County has also encountered a phenomenon common in other places: requests for waivers from regulations that do not exist.

According to a report released this winter by the National Governors' Association, State Actions To Restructure Schools, "Schools operate under a combination of real and mythical rules that have gone unquestioned for years."

Experts attribute part of the problem to middle managers, who add their own layers of restrictions to state and federal mandates and then pass them on as gospel.

In other cases, tradition has led teachers to assume that imaginary rules prevent them from doing things differently.

Brian L. Benzel, superintendent of the Edmonds, Wash., public schools, says, "Oftentimes, we may have elaborated a state rule or chosen to apply it in a certain way, and that compounds the impression that it's really the state that is doing it."

Based on such experiences, experts caution that efforts to "deregulate" education without involving district officials could leave schools with little added room to maneuver.

'Prisoners' of the Past

But the primary reason for the lack of waiver requests may be the inability of educators to imagine doing4things differently.

"People really are, to a striking degree, prisoners of the school culture that they've grown up in," Mr. Schwartz says, "and it's going to take a while to induce people to think in a more dramatic fashion.''

In San Diego, 48 schools are rethinking the way they operate. But a year into the process, "a lot of what's going on is not restructuring," says Hugh P. Boyle, president of the San Diego Teachers Association, "it's modifying the way we do things."

Without access to new ideas, knowledge, and time, experts suggest, increased flexibility may not achieve much.

In fact, schools may need several years of experimentation before they begin to stray far enough from existing practice to require ambitious waivers.

Officials in Dade County and in Jefferson County, Ky., say schools with the most experience in site-based management are just starting to challenge long-held assumptions about education. As a result, they say, they expect the number of consequential waivers to grow over time.

A Cumulative Effect?

Providing schools with significant regulatory relief may also be trickier than educators once thought. Individual mandates may pose less of a problem than the combined weight of hundreds of intersecting rules and regulations that create an ethos of passivity within schools.

According to the nga report, for example, one state required 28 different annual plans from its schools.

In some states, officials had anticipated that a pattern of waiver requests would highlight areas where broad policy changes were needed.

But few common patterns are emerging. A few exceptions are requests to loosen teacher-certification requirements so that teachers can work in teams, and to modify curriculum mandates to enable interdisciplinary coursework.

"It may not be individual rules that impede change," suggests Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education. "It may be the intersection of many of them. So rule-by-rule waivers aren't going to help you a lot."

A 'Cumbersome' Process?

Indeed, the waiver process itself may be too time-consuming and complicated, discouraging schools from even trying to change.

In most states, the provision of waivers is neither blanket nor automatic. Schools must request waivers each time they encounter a regulatory barrier. And it is up to the school to justify the exemption.

"The procedures for granting waivers tend to be cumbersome in every state," notes the nga report, "operating on a slow, case-by-case basis. The process is further complicated by lack of clarity over what rules can be waived and who has the authority to approve waivers from different sources" at the local, state, and federal levels.

"If the waiver process itself gets too bureaucratized," predicts Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, ''people will say, 'I don't have the energy to jump through all those hoops."'

Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, notes that the waiver process is inherently unequal.

"The school and the board go8through a negotiation about what's going to be delegated to the school," he asserts. But "the district holds all the cards. The school is essentially a supplicant."

Mr. Kolderie advocates a clearer and more substantive delegation of authority to schools from the outset.

No Incentive for Change?

Others argue that waivers may be the wrong or--at best--a limited tool to stimulate flexibility in education.

"Waivers allow, but don't encourage, change," notes Beverly L. Anderson, director of policy studies for the Education Commission of the States.

"What the waiver system does," asserts Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, "is maintain the current culture, because it essentially leaves in place this whole system of rules and regulations that define the world that people live in."

For real change to occur, he suggests, states and school districts will have to move toward a more outcome-driven system of accountability. Once schools can be held accountable for outcomes, Mr. Tucker says, holding them accountable for processes will not be necessary.

Many people are closely watching the changes in Kentucky because of their implications for substantial deregulation--and accountability--at the state level.

Late last month, in a court-ordered action, Kentucky lawmakers approved a plan that establishes a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on their performance. Schools that meet a certain threshold will be able to waive any regulation automatically, as long as it does not affect students' health, safety, or civil rights. The plan also mandates site-based management in all schools by 1996, providing faculties with substantial control over budgets, personnel, and programs.

The ability of Kentucky to move from a highly regulated system to an "outcomes-oriented one" will suggest what is possible in other places, says David Hornbeck, the lawyer with the Washington firm Hogan & Hartson who helped shape the Kentucky plan.

In South Carolina, meanwhile, the state in January released 125 high-achieving schools from most state regulations governing staffing, scheduling, and class structure up front. Schools will not have to justify experiments in those areas, as long as they maintain a certain level of student performance.

And in North Carolina, all schools--not just high-achieving ones--will be able to request waivers as part of a new School Improvement and Accountability Act.

Districts that choose to participate must submit a school-improvement plan, with annual benchmarks. In exchange, they can seek regulatory relief and receive funds for differentiated staffing. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 15, but all 134 of the state's school districts have notified state officials of their intent to file a plan.

"I have a feeling that, by the time this is over, there are going to be literally hundreds of different waiver requests approved," says John Dornan, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. In a state that has "micromanaged" education, he asserts, opening up the possibility of waivers to every school is a "terribly powerful" incentive.

'Important Symbolic Role'

In the future, predicts Jane L. David, co-author of the nga report and director of the Bay Area Research Group, there will have to be experiments with more blanket deregulation in all parts of the education system: federal, state, and local.

But such efforts "have to start small," she asserts, in order to build trust.

Many of those interviewed last week said widespread deregulation at this point would result in chaos, and would not allow states and districts to negotiate with schools over the wisdom of their restructuring plans.

For now, Ms. David says, "waivers still play a very important symbolic role. They do signal that restructuring is something very different from the usual reforms of the past."

Many states have had waiver provisions for years, experts note. But historically, "waivers were seen in a negative light," says Richard H. Card, deputy commissioner of education in Maine. "They were needed by schools or school systems that ... were unable to comply with minimum standards."

"Now," he says, "we're looking at using waivers because new structures are not consistent with old practices. It's a very different conceptual view."

But many still hope that waivers are only an interim step.

"In the ultimate, best-case scenario," says Terry I. Brooks, special assistant to the superintendent in Jefferson County, "schools would have very few restrictions to seek waivers from. But in the short term, you have to have some immediate mechanisms to seek relief."

Vol. 09, Issue 29

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