Texas education overhaul signals get-tough attitude

One could argue that the most famous animal in Texas is not the armadillo, not even the Texas longhorn, but the 32-day chicken. That's the animal whose example Dallas billionaire and self-styled crusader H. Ross Perot used time and time again last year, as he traveled around this state appealing for a monumental reform of Texas's public education system. To illustrate how far things in the schools had gotten out of hand, Mr. Perot cited the case of one boy who was allowed to miss 32 days of school so he could show his prize chicken in livestock competitions.

The story played so well with local crowds and newspapers that education reform had soon caught the state's collective imagination, paving the way for the Legislature to pass last June not only a major education reform bill, but a $4.6 billion tax increase -- the state's first in 14 years -- primarily to pay the bill's tab.

Today that bird is long gone, of course, and Mr. Perot, having achieved his goal as chairman of the state's select committee on education, has flown the education coop for other endeavors. But the 32-day chicken remains on the tip of many a Texan's tongue, as the schools here implement what is probably the most comprehensive education bill in an era of nationwide public education reform.

This year nobody in Texas will miss more than 10 days of school to show a chicken -- or throw a football, or march in a band, or put on Shakespeare -- and get away with it.

Nine months after the reform bill passed a special legislative session, many observers say the new laws -- which touch everything from teacher salaries and state aid to local districts, to discipline, attendance, and even the number of times the school day can be interrupted by announcements -- signal a new attitude.

``It says that Texas is serious about academic success,'' says Gov. Mark White, who named the special select committee that galvanized the public's support for tougher educational standards and higher school budgets.

As a result of the law, minimum beginning teacher salaries jumped from just over $11,000 to more than $15,000; teachers will be tested for competency; the number of high school credits required for graduation was increased from 18 to 21; students must meet tough new grade and attendance standards to participate in extracurricular activities; CHOclass size is strictly limited, and poorer school districts will benefit from new equalization measures.endCHO The list goes on extensively from there. (Curriculum was standardized in an earlier reform bill.)

Governor White, a Democrat elected in 1982 on a pledge to raise teacher salaries, acknowledges that the far-reaching bill has caused some problems -- notably in school discipline -- and will require some ``fine-tuning.'' But he emphasizes that many of the reform's measures have already had ``overwhelming success. Students are studying harder, and attendance is up.'' (See accompanying interview with Governor White.)

Yet many state officials and educators caution against expecting any real signs of progress too soon. And others, even while supporting the bill, acknowledge it signals a marked shift in philosophy on education, and in who will call the education shots.

``It was the business approach to education,'' says Rep. Bill Haley, a Democrat from Nacogdoches County and chairman of the House Committee on Education. He says the bill is most accurately a reflection of what businessman Perot wanted in an education system.

``It got to the point where it was his [Perot's] hobby,'' says Representative Haley, who maintains that Mr. Perot started his inquiry into education with ``a set agenda, and nothing was going to dissuade him from it.''endCHO

Perhaps the best example of the education reform's business philosophy is the emphasis it places on gauging what -- and who -- works, and responding accordingly. ``Probably the greatest thing about this bill is that it establishes the kind of accountability we've had in big business for many years,'' says Harold Massey, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP).

Included in the bill are requirements for detailed evaluations of school administrators, student testing and analyses of what is being taught, as well as teacher testing in both reading and writing and subject matter. This last provision was strongly opposed by the teaching profession, which held that the tests would be demoralizing to the majority of teachers who do their job well, and that recent reforms of teacher preparation would work in weeding out bad prospective teachers.

``But the legislature felt it was necessary to reestablish public confidence,'' says Mr. Massey, ``so they wanted to sound the horn that they were serious about finding any unqualified teachers and getting rid of them.'' Adds Representative Haley, comparing the teacher tests with ``using a bomb to kill the rats'': ``The question was how to justify that magnitude of a tax bill. It was just one more thing that we loaded on the back of the competency tests.''

There is some concern here that a new get-tough attitude on education signals a drift toward a philosophy more typical of Europe, where even before their teens, children are placed in academic or vocational-technical programs according to their abilities.

``In listening to Perot and his supporters, it sounds as if they want to change American education to the European or Japanese system,'' says Ronald Reaves, principal of Lee High School in San Antonio. ``Over there if you don't make it [academically] by junior high, you're out.'' Mr. Reaves notes, for example, that the new law lowers the compulsory attendance age from 17 to the year the student turns 16.

``I think the genius of the American education system is that we have not been like Europe, where children are making life-determining decisions at a very young age,'' adds Warren Alexander, deputy superintendent of San Antonio's Northside School District. CHO``I hate to see us move toward a dual system.''endCHO He fears that such things as a tougher grading scale -- statewide, a passing grade was raised from 60 to 70 -- and more rigorous attendance and graduation requirements portend a system ``focusing on the academically minded.''

Another concern fueled by the reform is the issue of state vs. local control of education. Although Texas may never have known the degree of local governance long cherished in some states, the reform nevertheless goes far in consolidating power at the state level. 2CHO A good example is the area of discipline. Under the new regulations, every district must submit a discipline code for approval by the state education agency. But a long list of requirements results in virtually one basic code for the entire state. And although this may help tighten up some schools where discipline was particularly lax, the general effect appears to be a tying of principals' hands in running their own schools.endCHO 1CHO For example, principals may no longer expel a student except for assault. And in the very rare case where suspension is allowed, the student must be provided with daily makeup work. ``Slowly, this is creating an attitude among some students of, `You can't do anything to me,' '' says Mr. Reaves. ``They say, `I can make up the work, so it's no big deal.' '' According to Reaves, his school's good discipline record has been undermined by the new regulations.endCHO 3CHO A number of school administrators cite such scenarios to support their contention that the reform will result in a ``leveling down'' of strong districts' performance. ``We understand that some districts may have abused local control,'' says Charles Brown, assistant superintendent for operations at San Antonio's Northside School District. ``But we spent a lot of time drawing up good programs, so we fear that some aspects of this [reform] could end up bringing down good districts to a common level.''endCHO

The concern seems to be that mandating one policy for the whole state will deny districts the flexibility that has led to innovative solutions. ``We really need to leave more room for policy, and less for law,'' says Representative Haley. ``But that's not the mood either the [select] committee or the Legislature was in.''

Despite these concerns, the reform continues to enjoy widespread support: partly because most people agree change was needed, and then because no one cares to risk association with that 32-day chicken. CHOat last resort In an appraisal that reflects a general feeling around this state, the TASSP's Massey says, ``I think 92 percent of this bill is excellent, 6 percent needs adjustment to make it work, and maybe 2 percent is undesirable. But I think that's a good average on anybody's day's work.''

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