Decentralization Plan Seen Sparking 'Education Revolution' in N.C.

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Jigsaw puzzles usually come with a box-top picture of what they look like when all the pieces fit together. Now, North Carolina's school system has a similar guide to what it should look like when its overhaul is completed.

The state board of education this month released its long-awaited plan to decentralize the school system. The state, said Jay Robinson, the board's chairman, must set goals for schools and determine how to measure their progress. But then, he said, the state needs to get out of the way.

"We believe we are on the verge of an education revolution that will provide a breath of fresh air to every classroom in North Carolina," Mr. Robinson said in a letter to state lawmakers outlining the plan.

Such a revolution, however, will require North Carolina to slice up its current school system and reassemble the pieces to fit the board's new scheme.

In the next two years, lawmakers will be asked to whittle down the state education apparatus, write flexibility for schools into state laws, and adopt an accountability system that measures each school against itself and not a statewide average.

Change of this order--no easy thing in any state--is made harder by the fact that North Carolina's school system traditionally has been one of the most centralized in the country. If state leaders balk at the task, or if lawmakers elected in 1996 change the course set by the board, the plan could become just another failed reform, warned John Dornan, the president of the North Carolina Public School Forum.

"We're somewhere between centralization and local control right now," he said, "and that may be the worst place to be."

300 Pink Slips

Such tension is felt acutely at the state education department. The board's plan includes pink slips for 300 employees there--38 percent of the agency--and a $21 million cut from its $53 million budget.

The new agency would be customer-driven, Mr. Robinson said. Representatives of various schools groups largely praised the agency-reorganization proposal and the new flexibility it promised schools. But critics of the plan argued that the cuts would go too deep and would cede too much state control of schools.

These reductions, combined with others made by Superintendent of Public Instruction Bobby Etheridge, would mean a 51 percent reduction in staff since 1989, according to department officials.

"What is happening is that the state presence is being literally removed from the education process," said A. Craig Phillips, a former state schools superintendent.

Rewriting All School Law

Alarms raised over the cuts are not likely to sway the legislature, according to school lobbyists and statehouse sources.

Lawmakers ordered the board to reorganize the department this spring, and lawmakers have passed a bill to turn most of Mr. Etheridge's powers over to the state board. (See Education Week, 3/8/95.)

The board's next hurdle, however, is a rewrite of state law to give schools more flexibility and build a new school-accountability system.

The plan calls for the board to set annual performance standards for each of the state's 1,969 public schools based on expectations of "reasonable progress" by students on state tests.

Schools where students achieve "at high level" would receive bonus state aid as an incentive. Low-performing schools would be assigned a state team of experts to design improvements.

Should that fail, the state board would appoint an interim "leader" with authority over the school's staff, and tenure would be suspended for the principal and teachers.

In districts where the majority of schools did not meet their performance goals, a caretaker superintendent would be appointed and all district teachers and administrators would lose tenure.

Fans and Foes

Local school officials who would gain flexibility and power under the plan greeted it warmly.

Principals have "always been responsible, by law, for what goes on in schools," said W. Lloyd Thrower, the executive director of the Tarheel Association of Principals/Assistant Principals "Now we can make changes and make things happen."

But officials of the union that represents most of the state's teachers and administrators promised to fight any changes to tenure laws, arguing that the laws already give the state board a way to remove bad employees.

"If you have a low-performing district," said Cecil Banks, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, "you don't need to go in with a shotgun and suspend all the teachers and administrators."

Another question is whether the lawmakers who talk about the benefits of local school control recognize that they must give up some of their own power to dictate what goes on in the classroom.

Statehouse observer noted that even as lawmakers are working on the decentralization plan, bills are moving quickly through the legislature that would mandate that every school teach phonics.

"Conceptually, we want local control," said Mr. Dornan of the Public School Forum. "But operationally it's a very different thing."

Vol. 14, Issue 36

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