School Proposals in ‘Tough Choices’ Report Could Face Frosty Reception From States

By Michele McNeil — January 05, 2007 8 min read
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The radical rethinking of how states manage their schools envisioned by a high-powered commission will run into resistance from state leaders reluctant to consider wresting control of K-12 education from local districts, policy experts predict.

The expanded state role is a key part of the panel’s report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” issued last month. It says states should fund schools entirely, take charge of hiring and paying teachers, and create new exams that would determine a big part of students’ futures at age 16.

The fate of those far-reaching recommendations will hinge not only on politics in the states, but also on the merits of the proposals themselves, which are likely to be fiercely disputed.

An executive summary of “Tough Choices or Tough Times” is posted by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

For states that are trying to boost their economies, close achievement gaps, and decrease dropout rates, new authority over schools might be welcomed.

But education experts who have read the report warn that state policymakers would risk a political backlash if they tried to shrink the power of local communities.

Some analysts oppose individual proposals, such as making states the direct employers of teachers. And others are uncertain whether the public even wants such revolutionary change.

“The question is: Are we ready to move away from local control of schools?” said David T. Conley, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon. “From a feasibility point of view, can this be done? Absolutely. From a political perspective, you would say no, this couldn’t be done.”

Warning for U.S.

Few have publicly disagreed with the premise of the 169-page report by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a panel organized by the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy. The report, crafted by education policy experts, former Cabinet members, former state elected officials, school superintendents, union leaders, and business executives, declares that the United States is losing ground in the global economy because the nation’s education system is failing at all levels. (“U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

Should the slide continue, the report says, more jobs will move overseas, other countries will surpass the United States in innovation, particularly in math, science, and technology fields, and the American standard of living will decline.

Tough Choices for States

Many of the ambitious recommendations by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce for an overhaul of the public education system would fall to the states for implementation. Among them:

• States would provide high-quality prekindergarten services for all students.

• States, not districts, would take on the entire funding responsibility for schools.

• States would administer rigorous board exams to students after the 10th grade. Those tests would open the way to technical schools, colleges, or universities.

• Teachers would be recruited, hired, paid, and trained by the states, not by districts. Top salaries for teachers would reach $110,000.

• Many states would change their laws to allow districts to turn over the day-to-day operations of their schools to private contractors.

SOURCE: New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce

The commission’s solution: a makeover of the public education system, from preschool through college and adult education, by 2021, with most of the burden falling on the states.

The report calls on states to take over total funding of schools, instead of supplementing K-12 state aid with local property taxes, which now is more typical. States would be in charge of teacher quality, pay, and recruitment, and the states—not school districts—would become the central employers of teachers. Each state would provide high-quality prekindergarten services for all children, and would implement board exams starting at age 16 that would serve as a student’s gateway into the postsecondary world.

Local school boards and districts also would relinquish much of their control over the day-to-day running of schools and turn the operation of schools over to private contractors.

But the report, which arrived amid praise from many in the business and academic communities, is far from becoming a legislative reality, and the reasons are numerous.

It lands at a time when states are grappling with the detailed requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, making it difficult for leaders to consider broader ideas such as changing the governance structure of schools. The elected officials, notably governors and state legislators, who would have to carry out many of the report’s recommendations face political risks in seeking to take power away from the local level.

What’s more, while the nation’s economy changes rapidly, the education system does not. Change typically is more incremental.

“When you’re caught up submitting the correct plan for implementing No Child Left Behind, then it’s hard to think about these bigger issues,” said David L. Shreve, an education policy expert with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Aiming to Make the Case

Similar skepticism initially greeted a report issued by the current commission’s predecessor in 1990, called “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.” That report, which called on the country to focus on increasing the number of high-skill workers, is credited, however, with helping to jump-start the now-established movement for standards-based reform in education.

“When we first came out for standards, we were shot at from the left and the right,” said Marc S. Tucker, who formed the original workforce commission and serves as the new commission’s vice chairman and staff director. Some critics even called the ideas “anti-American,” he said. “Now, the idea of standards is so widely accepted.”

Because of that experience, Mr. Tucker, who is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said he isn’t daunted by the initial reaction to the new report.

“People have said almost uniformly these are ideas worth discussing. That’s all we want right now,” Mr. Tucker, who helped to write both reports, said this week. “We haven’t had a chance to make our case yet.”

Commission members plan to spend the next six to 10 months presenting their arguments to the public by attending meetings of education associations, hosting forums, and visiting with governors, legislators, and chief state school officers. They also want to get governors from a small group of states to pilot some of the report’s ideas.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle, Mr. Tucker said, will be convincing those who aren’t schooled in education policy that a significant overhaul is needed to ensure there are good jobs, and good futures, for today’s students.

“Changes of this magnitude are not going to happen unless large numbers of ordinary Americans support them,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to communicate with ordinary Americans, and not just top policymakers.”

Key Leaders Quiet

The new report was unveiled to much fanfare, with scholars in the field calling it required reading for education leaders. It hasn’t quite turned out that way so far. The offices of Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, a Democrat, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, a Democrat—all of whom have taken leading roles nationally on education issues—weren’t able to comment on the report as of this week. Neither were teachers’ unions in the large states of Florida and Michigan.

Yet some of the new recommendations parallel initiatives and priorities already being raised at the state level.

Bolstering teacher quality, increasing students’ college and career readiness, and improving early-childhood education, for example, have long been rallying cries for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, an education compact comprising 16 member states in the South.

In that sense, the report is on target, said Lynn Cornett, the SREB’s senior vice president for education policy. But some of the recommendations are not realistic, she said. For example, she said, there’s no state marketplace for teachers; instead, many educators are drawn to schools based on the local district and local communities.

She said it would take more than the commission’s report to motivate leaders to enact the changes, mainly because the general public may not believe the situation is so dire.

“My question is: Is the public ready for a completely new model in which local communities have a very different role?”

Starting a Debate

There may be exceptions to that resistance, even though the report cautions states against “cherry-picking” the easiest, least controversial ideas. One recommendation already is resonating in states: prekindergarten.

“New governors and second-term governors are making early childhood their number-one priority,” said Dane Linn, the education division director of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.

However, he said, “there’s no way some of these other ideas could fly,” pointing to the proposal that local school boards give up much of their power.

David Shane, an appointed member of the Indiana state board of education, said the report poses a leadership puzzle for state-level politicians who must persuade the public that the education system needs to be revamped. The challenge, he said, is that the solutions called for in the report aren’t quick fixes.

“The difficulty is this is a longer-term solution. It’s not something where you can take action today and get results next Tuesday,” Mr. Shane said.

As for states that don’t like the report’s ideas, he added, “if they don’t have an alternative, they better be thinking about it.”

Perhaps the report’s greatest contribution will be to start a more serious debate about how to improve the country’s education system, said Jack O’Connell, California’s elected state superintendent of public instruction.

He noted that his state has a strong history of local control, in neighborhoods and school districts, so turning over control of schools to private contractors would be “hard to imagine.” And, he said, he’s not a big believer in such early identification of students’ career and future paths, which would largely be determined by the proposed board exams, to be given after 10th grade.

Still, Mr. O’Connell said, the report “is a blueprint that should create further discussion.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as School Proposals in ‘Tough Choices’ Report Could Face Frosty Reception From States


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