Local control of schools faces modern challenges. New England seeking equilibrium between state and community roles

A number of New England educators, wary of the kind of top-down education reform they see in states from New York to Texas, say they are counting on the region's deep-rooted respect for local governance to slow moves by the states into the education sector. The challenge in New England is to bring about a melding of the two poles of power -- local and state -- that respects the responsiveness and diversity of local control, while opening up to the broad and often-expensive initiatives the states see as fitting for all students.

In New England, cradle of the nation's public education system, the centuries-old tradition of local control of schools is facing serious challenge. Reflecting a nationwide trend, state legislatures and education offices from Vermont to Connecticut are playing a larger role in determining education policy -- from early education mandates to graduation requirements, teacher-skills development, and even specifics of curriculum.

The shift has come as states step in to help local communities by paying a larger share of the cost of public schools, and as a series of national reports on education galvanize state officials to shore up standards and improve performance.

In many circles, the trend is applauded. The loss of local control ``has a very positive side to it,'' says Mark Shibles, dean of the School of Education of the University of Connecticut at Storrs. ``State departments of education in the Midwest, for example, are much stronger. In the last few years, the state departments in New England have begun to exercise the same sort of power,'' Dr. Shibles says. ``States not only have the right but the obligation to set demanding standards.''

Business and industry leaders are notable supporters of greater state involvement in education. And, as might be guessed, support is high among education groups and teachers' organizations when it means more money for local school systems. The New England states -- which, with the exception of Maine, fall below the national average in contributing to the cost of local education -- are nevertheless paying larger shares of the cost of running public elementary and high schools.

But state money does not come without strings attached. Accountability is a major theme of reform efforts: Legislators want proof that their dollars are making a difference. Connecticut and New Hampshire are developing statewide testing programs. The Massachusetts legislature late last year rejected a proposal that would have required districts to submit a five-year ``school plan'' containing objectives and goals as well as plans for use of computers in the schools.

Support for increased state involvement in local schools is far from universal, however. A number of New England educators, wary of the kind of top-down education reform they see in states from New York to Texas, say they are counting on the region's deep-rooted respect for local governance to slow moves by the states into the education sector. Some feel that the jealously guarded tradition of local control may put New England ahead in efforts to fashion better school systems.

``Our schools are seen among the best in the country, so the local districts must have done something right all these years,'' says Tony Pepe, associate executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. ``We recognize the need for improvements, but not for any wholesale changeover in the system.''

Chief among her concerns over reduced local control: loss of diversity, wasting of local talent, and erosion of community support.

For Theodore Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, a national ``stampede toward more state control'' has resulted in counterproductive intrusion of state officials into the local school. Noting, for example, that Texas now regulates the number of times a day a principal can use the school's public address system, he says that ``the states doing the best at refusing state control are ahead, not behind.''

Of the often-heard criticism that New England states have not moved fast enough with education reform, Dr. Sizer says, ``Perhaps the perceived confusion and lack of action is really wisdom. I suggest that the New England states are in the forefront by not coming to a quick consensus on what's needed to improve education.''

A common complaint by local officials is that states pass legislation increasing education costs without appropriating sufficient funds to back up the mandates. Ms. Pepe notes that recent reports on public education made legislatures ``feel that they have to do something. Well, they do indeed need to do something,'' she adds: ``Pay more for the programs they're already requiring.''

She points to expensive state-mandated special education requirements as an example. ``Unless the state fulfills its financial responsibility, such mandates only mean that services for some are enhanced, while those for others are diminished.''

Nationwide, states pay an average of 48 percent of education costs. Maine matches that average, but the region's other states fall behind: in Connecticut and Massachusetts it's 39 percent; Rhode Island, 38 percent; Vermont, 33 percent; and New Hampshire, at 8 percent, is the lowest in the nation. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine plan to move toward 50 percent state funding.

According to Sizer, there is ``understanding'' among many state education officials in New England of the merit and wisdom of local control and a concomitant suspicion of national trends and state mandates. Says Stephen Kaagen, Vermont commissioner of education, ``There is a fear in this state of bandwagons. We [in the state department of education] share it.''

In New Hampshire, a desire to maintain local control over education is reflected not only in the low state aid, but in appointments to high state education positions as well. Commissioner Robert Brunelle is a former district superintendent of schools, and two members of the state board of education are also members of local school boards.

According to Neal Andrew, New Hampshire's deputy comissioner of education, potential concern over funding of new, state-mandated education initiatives was defused in November when voters passed a referendum requiring the state to pay for all new programs it mandates. Richard Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, says he thinks local boards have not expressed concern over tougher graduation standards and proposed statewide testing ``because the state plans to raise the money needed for the new programs.''

Mr. Andrew also notes that the new graduation requirements met little opposition ``because most districts had already met or surpassed [them] on their own.''

A similar situation exists in Connecticut, where Commissioner of Education Gerald N. Tirozzi is fond of recalling that he landed his new job the day the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its ``Nation at Risk'' report. Many school districts were already meeting new graduation requirements adopted last spring.

And in Massachusetts a recent survey showed that more than one quarter of the state's 428 school districts raised graduation requirements during the previous year. Commenting on the survey, Terry Zoulas, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Education, says, ``That's the plus side of local control. Local boards can act faster to respond to the mood of the community.'' That statement seems particularly apt, considering the unenthusiastic reception a a major education bill got in the Massachusetts legislature in 1984.

But according to Mario Fantini, dean of the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a close collaborator on the proposed state legislation, Massachusetts has purposely ``gone slow'' on education reform.

``What we're talking about is not the knee-jerk, quick-fix reaction that, from the perspective of some of us, some other states have rushed to undertake,'' says Dr. Fantini. ``We're looking at a long-term restructuring of the public school structure. And that's tough to do.''

The $500 million education bill would, among other things, shift some control over curriculum from local districts to the state, set maximum class sizes for elementary schools, mandate a second year of kindergarten, and set a minimum teacher salary of $18,000.

It would also encourage equalization of education quality by providing money to the poorest districts. The fact that some local school systems have much more to spend per pupil than others has been a longstanding problem in New England, where the largest chunk of money comes primarily from local property taxes.

Connecticut, which took an initial stab at equalization of funding in the late 1970s, is considering additional equalization measures. Rhode Island and New Hampshire are also debating proposals for more equitable education financing.

Fantini says the Massachusetts education bill includes elements needed to bring the public schools in line with the state's ``21st century'' economy: massive infusion of high technology, retraining of personnel, and greater involvement with local business and community organizations. Proponents of local school control support many of these measures, but they vehemently oppose a number of other aspects of the bill.

Margaret Jacques, assistant executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, says the legislation's ``five-year plan'' requirement for local districts is particularly intrusive. It allows the state to determine how its aid to a district will be spent, if the local system fails to meet objectives set in the plan.

Beyond a fear that a community's schools will ``lose their uniqueness,'' Ms. Jacques says there is concern that increased state involvement would ``level-down those communities that already have a high level of expectation and results.''

The Massachusetts bill will be reintroduced in 1985, but its chances are considered slim.

And with education continuing to command a high degree of attention, it appears likely that the New England states will go on grappling with the merits of local vs. state control.

In Maine, state and education officials say the issue could flare up next year as the state works to implement a major education bill passed this fall. The legislation includes increases in high school graduation requirements, mandatory establishment of kindergarten classes, and teacher development and retention measures.

Richard Redmond, the state's deputy commissioner of education, notes that a special commission for implementation was formed in part as a response to concerns about loss of local control.

The challenge in New England is to bring about a melding of the two poles of power -- local and state -- that respects the responsiveness and diversity of local control, while opening up to the broad and often-expensive initiatives the states see as fitting for all students.

Says Connecticut's Ms. Pepe, ``We think our local school system has worked well. What we'd like is an improved partnership with the state.''

And Vermont education commissioner Kaagen says, ``The state has taken a pronounced leadership role. . . . The state board [of education] is where the action is. But change has to be organic; the local people have to participate.'' --

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