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Analyst proposes more local control over public education
By Jennifer Kerr, Associated Press Writer, Associated Press, (May, 1999)

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- Three decades ago, California's public schools were run locally with little state involvement. Now, state requirements play a big role in classrooms.

As lawmakers consider changing the complex and sometimes stormy relationship, a legislative analyst suggested Tuesday that state government should set standards and provide funding, then step back and let schools decide how to educate students.

"The school sites and the districts are closer to the students and their various needs and can respond to the needs," said Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, a nonpartisan adviser to the Legislature. "It's very difficult to do that from Sacramento."

Such a shift would be welcomed by school officials who say too many state controls make it difficult for California's diverse districts to teach children.

"Giving me the flexibility to set my own priorities and make the changes in my
organization which are the most meaningful to lead to student achievement, I would welcome that," said John Casey, superintendent of the 20,000-student Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville.

A report released by Hill's office proposes creation of a state master plan for public schools.

Such a plan would outline the roles and responsibilities of state government, the nearly 1,000 locally elected school boards and the 8,000 public schools in the education of California's 5.7 million children.

It would be similar to one that has guided state colleges since 1960.

Various school groups, such as the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators, have asked the Legislature to write a long-range plan for kindergarten through grade 12 education.

They say dozens of changes in the past few years -- such as class-size reduction, statewide academic standards and Gov. Gray Davis' recent school-improvement bills -- have been made piecemeal.

The Senate last month voted unanimously to create a committee to develop a K-12 master plan by November 2000. It would include a new plan for public school and a revision of the college plan. The Assembly has not yet voted on it.

Davis has taken no position on that proposal, spokeswoman Hilary McLean said. He had not seen the analyst's report Tuesday and had no comment on it, she said. The report suggests reversing the trend of the last three decades, when a series of court decisions, laws and voter-approved initiatives shifted power from school districts to the state.

The current state-centered system was not developed from a long-term strategy, the report states.

"Instead, the state presence in K-12 education results from the accumulation of large and small policy decisions that generally increase the state's role at the expense of school districts," the report says.

Casey said the result is a "one-size-fits-all" approach that frustrates local school officials.

For example, the state provided $250 million last year for new textbooks, Casey said. His district did not need new books and was not allowed to use the money for other needs, such as raising low teacher salaries, he said.

The legislative analyst's office said a master plan should place state government in the role of setting standards for academic performance, providing adequate funding and informing districts, teachers and parents about successful school programs. Districts should have the power to determine what their relationship with individual schools should be, its report says.

While it may take some time to write a master plan, the task might not be as difficult as the battles of the last few years over developing state standards for reading, mathematics, science and social science and a statewide achievement test, school groups say.

"I think the master plan is the next step -- to take the standard-based system and figure out where to go for the next 10 years," said Dennis Meyers of the California Association of School Administrators. "I don't think there's going to be a lot of disagreement, but there needs to be a lot of discussion."

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