State Officials Seek Flexibility, Regulatory Relief

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Wilmington, Del.

While President Clinton was out pushing his ideas for national academic tests and standards, members of Congress learned last week that Delaware is already a step ahead.

The state does not need federal help to measure its students' achievement because its system goes above and beyond President Clinton's proposals, according to its top education officials.

What the state does need is flexibility in federal regulations--freedom to figure out how to bring student achievement up to the ambitious standards it has set, several of its top education officials said at a March 3 hearing here.

In a series of field hearings, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., has the House education oversight subcommittee he chairs focusing on what programs are working and what money and effort are being wasted in public schools across the country.

So far, the subcommittee has made stops in Arizona and California. And the roadshow will continue with yet-to-be-named stops about once a week in the coming months.

State in Spotlight

Last week, the oversight panel stopped here, on the turf of Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del. Reps. Hoekstra and Castle and two other subcommittee members trekked to Wilmington High School to take a look at Delaware's standards, which have won praise from education groups across the country. They posed questions about whether the federal government should set minimum standards in core academic areas, and how it could help states meet those goals at a time when many student test results have been less than encouraging.

The hearing also gave state leaders a forum to laud some of their own initiatives, such as the standards effort and the state's public-school-choice system.

The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee cannot propose legislation but will review programs that are called into question, a spokesman said.

The panel plans to keep making stops through the end of the year, said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the full Education and the Workforce Committee.

Plea for Deregulation

In Delaware last week, state officials did not offer many complaints. Instead, they focused on highlighting their own accomplishments, hoping Congress might learn a thing or two.

The state is now working on tests to mark students' performance against the state's standards, officials told the panel.

"Our top issue now is, what do we do with the results of those assessments?" said Gov. Thomas R. Carper. "It's imperative to me that all kids have a decent shot at meeting those standards."

Mr. Carper pointed out the state has taken several steps to try to boost the performance of at-risk students: training parents in early-childhood-development issues, creating new discipline programs such as in-school suspension, and investing in classroom technology.

While most of the state officials had suggestions on how federal programs could help in their efforts, they begged for flexibility and relief from regulations as they attempt to bring students' scores up to par.

"You can't assume that all of a sudden students are going to show up and be able to meet those new standards," said George Frunzi, the superintendent of the Sussex vocational education district in Georgetown.

Districts need to experiment with teacher training and lesson planning to figure out the best way to raise test scores, nearly all the state officials agreed. Mr. Frunzi said his district found that more students applied to vocational training programs after administrators were allowed to raise the number of core academic classes required for graduation.

One state leader said that students fail because the current education system follows mostly a "one size fits all" approach.

"We have attempted to create a program that meets everyone's needs, and the world just isn't like that," said state Sen. Richard Hauge, a Republican.

Yes to National Standards

Back in Washington, one committee member said that even though the federal government is lagging behind some states, national standards are still needed.

"Minimum requirements should not be negotiable," said Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who also attended the Delaware meeting. "That would still allow states and localities to set higher and broader standards."

Mr. Riggs disagreed with some Republicans who said Mr. Clinton's proposed national standards would encourage states to lower their expectations.

At a Washington hearing March 5 with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, Mr. Hoekstra was quick to relate the lessons he had learned in Delaware.

While he did not dismiss the Clinton administration's plan to craft voluntary national standards in reading and math, Mr. Hoekstra said the Department of Education needed to streamline its programs and allow states to take the reins on some reforms, citing Delaware as an example.

"It's time for Washington to focus on those things it can do really well in education," Mr. Hoekstra said.

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