Rewriting State Education History

Article excerpt

These days the phrase that best describes the state education scene is "unprecedented change." Abolishing or drastically revising the state education code, reducing state rules and regulations, changing the governance structure for the state board and for the chief state school officer, and downsizing the state department are items under discussion in many states.

Provisions in state constitutions that create a system of public schools and underpin the functions of the state board and state superintendent have a long and rich history. This history was once deemed so important that in 1969 the Council of Chief State School Officers devoted two volumes to the history of education in the states.(1) The first contained a long chapter for each state, written by a "senior official" in that state. The second was devoted to an overview of state education activity and laws since 1900. The two tomes were never on the best-seller list, but in the 1960s and 1970s they were often prominently displayed on the bookshelves in each chief's office. Today, they are out of sight, probably on the back shelves of the state library or carried off as office mementos. They might even be found in a box of obscure books at a garage sale or flea market.

Someone needs to find these books and read what the old-timers had in mind for education. In many instances the early "vision" has been lost, with hundreds of decisions layered into the codes over the years. In many states economic and social changes may have outpaced the original vision. Many of the current proposals for change are based on a political wisdom that has been in vogue since the last election. There is the possibility that this new political wisdom could match the original vision of a century ago, but there is also the possibility that the proponents of the status quo could find support in their state's history. But if no one knows - or cares to find out - then "bold" and "forthright" action in 1995 could be just a step backward.

Education Code Changes

Both Gov. Pete Wilson of California and Gov. John Engler of Michigan called for the abolition of the education code in their state-of-the-state addresses earlier this year. California's 11 volumes do go into great detail, with some critics, such as Gov. Wilson, calling it micromanagement when even the contents of school first-aid kits are mandated. Proposing to go "cold turkey" and throw the whole code out certainly starts a good discussion, but in the one state (Kentucky) where this was done by the courts it quickly became apparent that something must replace the old code. Those in charge in other states will soon find themselves facing the same question that the founders of the current system faced: Do we abolish or keep school districts? And once this fundamental decision has been made, a host of other decisions related to safety, health, and accountability all step forward.

In normal times most states repeal existing parts of the code as they add new items. Other states have begun building "sunset clauses" into new legislation, thus forcing programs back for periodic review. In recent years the use of "waivers" has grown popular, but increasingly states are reporting that waivers are more likely to be needed between local boards and individual buildings than they are between states and districts.

In 1977 Jim Walsh and J. Peter Williams, Jr. - a couple of Texas attorneys specializing in school law - wrote a model state education code. Their effort was "policy oriented" rather than "rule oriented." At the time, their work was not widely accepted, and in fact its only known national exposure came in a brief Kappan article that year and in a discussion session at the annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States. But today people are still asking which states have "short" or "good" education codes that could serve as models.

For the past six months the staff of the Education Commission of the States has been working with California's policy leaders and with some 40 state education groups to draft a new agenda for California schools and communities. …