Texans not sure whether to fine tune or scrap education reforms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

These days it can seem as though nobody in Texas is happy with the state's 18-month-old education reform -- except maybe the governor. Democratic Gov. Mark White, who is expected to give top billing to improvements in the state's education system in next year's reelection campaign, uses every opportunity, from TV spots to weekly news conferences, to heap praise on the comprehensive reforms.

But others, from the state's coaches and principals to some Democratic legislative leaders, and, not surprisingly, Republican candidates for governor, are finding fault with portions of the reform or its implementation.

The Texas 1984 education-reform package includes, among other changes: equalization of state aid to school districts; secondary education competency tests that must be passed to advance and to gain a high school diploma; and the highly controversial ``no pass, no play'' rule, which bars students from extracurricular activities if they receive an ``F'' in even one class.

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The state's coaches, unhappy about the no-pass, no-play rules have voted to test their muscles in the political arena by forming a political-action committee (PAC). The coaches hope to convince voters and state lawmakers that the rule, as currently written, acts as a disincentive to students with failing grades but a high interest in school athletics.

Republican gubernatorial candidates are criticizing the no-pass, no-play rule as too harsh, because it keeps failing students out of extra curriculars for a full six-week grading period. The rule has been in effect since January but faced its biggest public test this fall during the state's sacrosanct high school football season.

Also this month, the state's principals voted to form their own PAC, citing a failure of the state's politicians to address their concerns about a new teacher evaluation and compensation plan, and loss of local control over student discipline.

Most recently, the lieutenant governor and House speaker, both Democrats, criticized the reform's graduation exam as too easy. Their appraisal followed an 85-percent success rate among high school juniors who took a trial run of the test in October. State education leaders, who had predicted a 75-percent pass rate, admitted that results would not have been so glowing if certain questions deemed too difficult by the state education board had not been dropped from the test.

Of concern to Jon Brumley, chairman of the State Board of Education, is that many participants in the reform -- critics as well as supporters -- don't see its implementation as a ``process'' that will result in a better education system only as provisions are tested and kinks worked out.

Mr. Brumley stands by the decision to give an easier version of the graduation test this year, for example, since some students had not been exposed to topics covered by the harder questions. But he says the test could be made more difficult next year.

Other observers say there is concern that many legislators are unwilling to accept the need for fine-tuning. (The Legislature doesn't meet again until January 1987.)

A lack of technical assistance from the central Texas Education Agency to the state's 1,100 school districts is also seen as a problem that could continue to hamper educational improvement in the state.

The coaches and principals say their decision to form PACs stems from ``frustration'' in trying unsuccessfully to get changes in provisions that they maintain have already proved unsatisfactory.

The state's news media have generally zeroed in on Governor White as the PACs' target, since he is unbending on the no-pass, no-play rule's six-week suspension period.

But leaders of both the Texas Coaches Association and the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP) say their first concern is to ``educate the public'' about the reform's shortcomings.

``Our purpose was not to attack anyone,'' said Fred Richardson, president of the TASSP and principal of a middle school north of Houston. ``We share the governor's commitment to educational excellence.''

Larry Yawn, Governor White's education adviser, said his office has found ``wide support'' throughout Texas for the reforms, although there is, he added, ``a fair amount of vocal opposition.''

Norton Grubb, an assistant professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, says a study he recently completed on the reform's implementation shows heavy support in the public schools for most measures -- including no-pass no-play. And he adds that continuing public debate over a few of the reform's measures will only discourage leaders from paying attention to more important problems, such as a lack of technical assistance to poor rural districts, or funding needs for mandated tutorial

programs.

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