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From statehouse to schoolhouse.

This spring marks the 10th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," the federal report that launched education reform. While others talk about broad goals, legislators have been working hard to develop specific solutions.

At 21 years of age, Lisa blends right in with all the other students in her college classrooms. Her grades are good and she is moving steadily toward a degree in law enforcement. What you can't see when you look at Lisa is the difficult road she has traveled to get where she is today.

Lisa has a 4-year-old daughter, conceived during her sophomore year of high school. Being from a troubled home, the idea of marrying her 23-year-old boyfriend and having their child provided the 16-year-old with a sense of security she did not have in her own family; it all seemed so romantic. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last and, over time, reality set in.

Her good sense and intelligence led Lisa to the realization that she had to finish school, but the idea of returning to her old high school at age 18 was uncomfortable. Luckily, legislators in Lisa's home state of Minnesota had established special schools for students who are out of the mainstream but want to finish high school. Additionally, a postsecondary options program, also initiated in legislation, allowed Lisa to attend college classes and earn credits for high school and college simultaneously. Lisa soon caught up with her peers.

Chances are that Lisa knows little about the legislation that created the programs she took advantage of or the legislators who sponsored them. Yet, from school finance to school choice, Maine to California, state legislators have paved the way for change in America's schools. While the federal administration and the governors have talked and developed broad goals, legislators have been working hard to find ways to improve education.

April 1993 marks the 10-year anniversary of "A Nation At Risk: The Imperatives for Educational Reform." In 1982, the National Commission on Excellence in Education conducted research into the quality of America's public school systems. "A Nation At Risk" reported the conclusions of this research, summed up in the oft-quoted statement, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Before 1983, state legislatures merely helped pay for education. Education policy was hammered out mainly by the state board of education or in local districts. "A Nation At Risk" helped change the role of state legislatures by questioning the adequacy of public education. Lawmakers could not continue to pour money into an ineffective system. Education reform became the direct concern of legislative education and finance committees.

"Education is a state responsibility," says Michael Kirst, director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), in his essay in Education Reform in the '90s. "States provide the largest share of education funding, and voters increasingly look to state capitols for an accounting of how their children are faring, how their money is being spent and how schools are working."

Initial reforms followed the recommendations listed in "A Nation At Risk." Legislators addressed the technical aspects of education -- the amount of time spent in the classroom, teacher salaries and certification requirements and student-teacher ratios. For example, laws were passed in Arkansas, Indiana and Mississippi to lengthen the school year; South Carolina passed laws to improve teacher education programs; and legislators in Connecticut and Iowa developed legislation to make teaching a more rewarding profession.

Reformers hoped these remedies would heal the wounds of our education system. Unfortunately, while they relieved some aches and pains, our troubles remained uncured. "Nearly a decade later we find that these efforts had scant impact. Reliable measures of student achievement revealed little or no improvement," says Speaker John Martin of Maine.

Improving the public schools required much more than reforming current laws. State education systems as a whole needed to be restructured to serve a new breed of students--students in an information age whose lives differed immensely from the lives of youngsters 100 years ago, around which our current system was formed.

Beginning in the late 1800s American educators shifted their focus from serving an agrarian community to serving an urban, industrial society. "What the industrial economy seemed to require was a well-educated elite and the masses trained for low-skilled jobs," says Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform.

Over the next century, families, society and the workforce changed dramatically. Educators began to acknowledge that, once again, schools needed to be brought up-to-date to adequately serve modern America. "The school reform movement cannot proceed much further until its leaders clearly identify the purpose of schooling for the 21st century," says Schlechty.

As academics and policymakers searched more deeply for the roots of America's educational mediocrity, they uncovered social and family ills, funding inequities and top-down decision making that blocked efforts to true reform. State legislators began an education of their own, searching for ways to break through these barriers to learning and provide their youngest constituents with a quality education.

Education in the United States had entered the era of the "whole child." As a result, interagency collaboration became a centerpiece of many reform efforts. Schools opened their doors to health and mental health agencies in an effort to provide children with comprehensive services in a location they were likely to visit. Michael Kirst confirms the importance of collaboration. "An alliance of parents, social service agencies and educators can make a big difference for children with social and family problems. State government has a major role in funding these efforts." In 1989, the Iowa General Assembly enacted a group of policies to provide at-risk children and their families with coordinated services including school-based youth services programs for students in middle and high schools. Participating schools were required to provide health, mental health, employment and educational services for students. Youths might attend drug abuse prevention classes, receive counseling for emotional problems or participate in a work-study program all at one school site.

Many new ideas emerged from this "whole child" movement. They included hiring school counselors, creating alternative schools for students who do not fit the mold of traditional schools, and "mainstreaming" students who previously were labeled as slow learners or disabled. State policies reflecting these priorities include Virginia's support of elementary school counselors and Minnesota's Area Learning Centers.

Still, educational achievement in America was lagging, and a consensus had yet to be reached regarding the answer to this dilemma. As the '90s approached, educators were forced to face a painful truth: There are as many "best" approaches to education reform as there are students, Policies need to be flexible and, to a large extent, developed by professionals in the schoolhouse. "States need to encourage diversity in local school policy and then build on this diversity," says Kirst. "States can then create networks of restructured schools that can learn from each other." This realization began the trend toward bottom-up reforms, giving more power to teachers and principals at the school and holding those same people accountable for academic results.

School or site-based management, regulation waivers and charter schools are a few of the current policy trends that recognize the need for local control. These programs are based in legislation, and state lawmakers are setting the standards, rewards and penalties associated with new administrative freedoms.

Local School Councils

In 1988, the Chicago School Reform Act mandated the restructuring of that city's schools. One of the goals of the legislation was to create a management system at each school governed by Local School Councils (LSCs). Each council includes parents, community representatives, teachers and the school's principal.

The Legislature was compelled to impose this and other reforms upon Chicago's schools because of a lack of action at the local level. According to the publication Chicago School Reform: What It Is and How It Came To Be, district-level politics were making much needed reform efforts impossible.

The jury is still out as to whether or not LSCs have improved student achievement in Chicago's schools. No matter what the verdict, the initiative is a bold one that will provide invaluable lessons to school reformers across America.

Deregulation and School Takeover

South Carolina's Target 2000 legislation called for increased accountability in South Carolina's schools. The state department of education responded to that call by creating the "Flexibility Through Deregulation Program" and the "Quality Assessment Program."

Deregulation of this state's schools began in January 1990. For schools with a high rate of improved student achievement, the state waived regulations for staffing, class structure and class scheduling to encourage innovation in the classroom. An evaluation of this program is currently under way.

The Quality Assessment Program defines standards regarding improved student achievement, drop-out rates and pass-fail rates on high school exit exams. Any district failing to meet these standards can be taken over by the state. Initial implementation of this program in 1989 led to some localities being identified as "impaired." These districts received time to reach standards, and all have. To date, the state has not taken over any district.

Charter Schools

The most recent effort to free educators from bureaucracy and encourage local reform is Minnesota's creation of charter schools. These are schools, developed by a team of teachers, that receive funding from the state but are relieved of most state regulations as long as students meet specified standards. Senate Majority Whip Ember Reichgott pioneered the effort: "We wanted to provide more opportunities for choice within the public school system. Some districts are more reform oriented than others. This legislation provides incentives for all districts to be innovative and create schools to serve the needs of a variety of children." To this end, four charters have been granted thus far, each in a different district. They include a school for high school dropouts, a Montessori-style elementary school, a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, and an open school with an environmental focus.

Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation allowing charter schools in 1991; California has followed suit. Says Reichgott: "This is one instance where the state legislature led the way nationally. Senator Durenburger proposed similar legislation in Congress and now a number of other states are considering this approach." New Jersey and Colorado are two states considering placing charter schools in their statutes.

In some states, lawmakers have passed sweeping reform bills that will change the way public education is conducted in their states. These bills are so inclusive that they will take years to implement and evaluate. "Legislators have a tendency to think in terms of sound bites," says Kentucky Senator David Karem. "But when it comes to education reform we've got to give it lots of time." School reforms in Oregon, Oklahoma and Kentucky serve as illustrations.


In 1991, legislators passed the "Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century." While this bill contained a variety of reforms, one component presents a unique approach to the dilemma of school-to-work transition and how to provide sufficient educational opportunities for students not bound for college. This is significant because, generally, these kids are often left by the wayside with little incentive even to finish high school. Former Senator Vera Katz, the bill's author, saw these issues as urgent. "We needed to set higher standards for all youngsters and to meet the expectations of a highly skilled and educated workforce."

Oregon now has two levels of high school competency and two tracks available for juniors and seniors. The Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM) will be earned by all students by the close of 10th grade. Then students will work toward a Certificate of Advanced Mastery emphasizing college preparation or professional training.

Katz believes the legislature was the appropriate forum for creating this type of policy. "It is our job to institutionalize the standards of the state -- articulate clearly what the state expects of its citizens. We set expectations, outcomes and measurement tools and let the locals take it from there."


This state's education and tax package of 1990 included reforms ranging from developing early childhood programs to encouraging district consolidation. The legislation also raised $230 million in new taxes, a move that received an outstanding amount of public support. The new money to implement reforms comes from a half-cent sales tax increase, 1 percent increase in corporate taxes and a 10 percent increase in personal income tax. Low-income families get a sales tax refund.

Over 5,000 people, including teachers, parents, students, school board members and administrators, demonstrated outside of the Oklahoma Capitol demanding that legislators pass the reforms and tax increases needed to improve the public schools in that state.


State lawmakers were handed an extraordinary, albeit daunting, opportunity in 1989 when the Kentucky Supreme Court found the state's entire education system to be unconstitutional (Rose vs. Council for Better Education). The judge ordered the General Assembly to rebuild public education in its entirety. "I don't think anyone ever expected to be asked to do anything of this magnitude," says Senator David Karem. "And what took over was a momentum that could never have been achieved except within a tight time schedule."

Lawmakers designed the bill in nine months with the advice of several national experts. Passed in the spring of 1990, this legislation is being implemented with gusto. "There has been a wonderful response from the education administration and the people of this state. It's amazing what has been accomplished," says Karem. Some of those accomplishments include the reorganization of the entire department of education and state education governance system, and the statewide implementation of local school councils, kindergarten classes, services for handicapped 3- and 4-year-olds and professional development programs for teachers.

State legislatures shoulder a huge responsibility when it comes to the quality of public schools. They provide, on average, 50 percent of school funding and must answer to taxpayers regarding the effectiveness of that investment. Faced with a failing school system, the role of the legislature has shifted to include educational oversight and development of ways to hold educators accountable for results. As school governance moves into the schoolhouse, this new legislative role is likely to continue.

Constance L. Koprowicz tracks education policy for NCSL.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:how legislators launched education reform
Author:Koprowicz, Constance L.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Change ahead for legislative staffs.
Next Article:The art of school reform.

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