Legislators Assert Their Role in National-Goal Effort
Rather than guiding the states' future school-reform efforts, the national education goals developed by President Bush and the governors may be only a secondary consideration for the legislatures as they move to implement their own improvement plans, lawmakers at the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting here suggested.
After being effectively sidelined while the governors and White House officials established the national targets, leading legislators also made clear here last month their intention to have more say in deciding what will be done to meet them.
The central role of legislators and local educators in determining the fate of the goals effort was also underscored by two of its chief architects.
"Most of the work that remains will need to be accomplished at the state and local levels," Roger B. Porter, President Bush's economic and domestic-policy adviser, told the meeting.
And Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas urged lawmakers to have patience as the governors and the White House pushed for implementation of the goals.
"We did not cut state legislatures out of the process," Mr. Clinton said. "The process is just beginning."
But state lawmakers said they unsure to what degree the education goals would guide their individual efforts, particularly in states where reforms are already in place or under way.
"It's one thing for the governors and President to talk in splendid isolation about goals," said Representative Wilhelmina Delco of Texas. But many state officials who were left out of the goals process, she continued, may opt for home-grown reforms rather than following the White House and governors' general outline.
The national goals for the year 2000 include decreasing the dropout rate to 10 percent, raising U.S. students to the top rung of international mathematics and science achievement, preparing all children for the 1st grade, and improving adult-literacy and continuing-education efforts.
The frustrations voiced by state lawmakers echoed in some ways the recent complaints of members of the Congress about being effectively excluded from a panel set up to moniprogress toward the goals. (See story, page 34.)
At a daylong session on the education goals here, many lawmakers complained that the governors and White House officials have done little to encourage legislators to take a prominent place in following through on the national education agenda.
"We're dismayed that we have not been included," said Lee A. Daniels, Republican leader in the Illinois House and president of the NCSL.
Those responsible for launching the goals campaign should have moved earlier to acknowledge the role of other state leaders and local officials, Mr. Daniels added. "To achieve national goals, you have to recognize states face different situations, and there is not a better forum for that than state legislatures."
Greater input from lawmakers should have been sought if only because of their financial stake in the goals, said Senator Regis F. Groff of Colorado. "If the federal government, the Administration, and the governors expected such a large part of the cost to be borne by states and come out of state legislatures, certainly the legislators ought to have been included," he said.
The predetermined education agenda leaves state lawmakers without a sense of "ownership," said Representative Delco. That lack may be a significant factor in already-tight battles for new appropriations, she warned.
"If the legislature has to appropriate the money, we want to be a player in the development of the plan," she said. "There is not a single goal that, in general, I would disagree with. But when you get into specific priorities for funding, you may have to negotiate down, so you sure want to be a part of the discussion."
If the goals are to guide state and local reform policies, state lawmakers will not only have to champion implementation but also rally wider support for the goals themselves, said Representative Gene L. Hoffman of Illinois, who serves as chairman of the NCSL's education and job-training committee.
"We're trying to make an opportunity out of what seems to be a void," Mr. Hoffman said. "Obviously, in this country, state legislatures make the education decisions. At this time, however, we do need to look at the issue in context nationally."
Education advocates who attended the NCSL meeting predicted that the goals' rough transition from the executive to legislative branch at both the federal and state levels would not disrupt the overall climate for school improvement, but could slow its momentum.
"The stakes are so high and this will take so long, and politically it's so complicated, that the last thing this country needs is a tug of war of prerogatives," said Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.
"In a lot of ways, legislatures, because of their tenure and legal responsibility, are key agents," Mr. Usdan said, adding that most legislatures have yet to start grappling with the issue of how to incorporate the national goals.
"My own sense is that the goal issue is still a little abstract for state legislators," he added. "They view it as useful but not very practical."