Going Back to School: Part 5. Governors mount major drive on education. TOMORROW: How parents view reform

For a cadre of the nation's governors, the ``window of opportunity'' for major reform in the public schools is still wide open. Rolling up their sleeves this summer at meetings in both Philadelphia and Boise, Idaho, these ``education governors,'' intent on keeping schooling high on the public's agenda, developed policy strategies on ``the toughest issues'' facing public education. These governors also welcome the challenge handed them when President Reagan's policies resulted in a diminished federal role in education. The group comprises some 15 like-minded statehouse chiefs active in the education excellence movement of the las t three years.

Solving a state's education problem is tantamount to solving its unemployment problem, its welfare problem, and its prison problem, says Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, a prominent leader of the ``education governors.'' In an internationally competitive, high-tech, information economy, economic development is linked to a state's education development, he says. Good schools attract, create, and keep a work force that can compete in such an environment. At the National Governors' Associa tion (NGA) annual meeting held in Boise last month, incoming chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee spelled out seven school issues he wants given the highest visibility: various options for parental choice (vouchers); early-childhood education; teacher training and career ladders; the use of new technologies in education; more economical use of school facilities; better school leadership and management; and the improvement of the quality and financial base of higher education.

Encouraged by the wave of education reforms that have swept the country in the last two years, Governor Robb, outgoing chairman at the Education Commission of the States (ECS), is calling for educators to be ``as daring'' in their teaching reforms for potential dropouts ``as the most daring businesses have been in their efforts to adjust to the new, international, high-tech, information economy'' the United States finds itself in as it enters the 21st century.

Of great concern to Robb and ECS is the ``fact that the number of young people in the labor pool is shrinking at the same time the high school dropout rate is climbing.''

Citing a preliminary report issued at the ECS annual convention here in Philadelphia recently, ``Reconnecting Youth: The Next Stage of Reform,'' Robb warned that ``a growing proportion of our young people are not making successful transitions to productive adult lives. They are paying a heavy price. We as a society are paying a heavy price.''

Hand in hand with the push by state leaders to keep education in the forefront of the nation's concerns is the effort to broaden the role classroom teachers play in helping carry out school reform.

``We have been doing too much talking and too little listening to teachers,'' New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean told ECS in Philadelphia. It is time for the policy leadership to include teachers, he says.

``I'm just not sure how much further governors and state boards . . . ought to, or should, go without the classroom teacher,'' Governor Kean continued. ``I don't see how much more productive they can get. If we want to build on what we've created and move on to new areas of creativity, it's got to be in conjunction with the classroom teacher. It's based on that philosophy and that thought that this initiative has come about.''

As incoming chairman of ECS, Kean called on education leaders to renew their commitment to effective teaching. He announced an initiative to sponsor a series of national forums during this school year called ``Talks With Teachers.''

In addition to this program, ECS will conduct a state-by-state survey focused on policy efforts to improve teaching. He will also head up an NGA task force on teachers.

Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado will chair another NGA task force on parental involvement and choice. He had proposed a voucher plan in Colorado that would allow students who dropped out of school to reenroll at the private or public school of their choice. The Colorado legislature passed amended legislation this past spring allowing such vouchers for public schools only.

In South Dakota, the issue of choice will be addressed by letting consumers ``vote with their feet,'' says Gov. William Janklow. His ``family option'' plan, which began this month, allows pupils in public schools with fewer than 45 students to transfer to neighboring school districts. The state picks up the tab for the added cost at the new school while still adequately funding the old school.

``We in South Carolina are seeing nothing short of a positive revolution in the attitudes toward public education,'' says Gov. Richard Riley about the reforms now in place in his state. Governor Riley will direct a study of early-childhood education for NGA. His state is touted as having the most comprehensive education reform plans in the country.

Other governors appointed as chairmen of NGA task forces, each of whom has shown ``a high level of concern'' in his related area of responsibility, says Governor Alexander, are Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire, technology in education; Gov. Ted Schwinden of Montana, use of school facilities; Gov. John Ashcroft of Missouri, college quality; Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, school leadership and management.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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