ARIZONA'S EDUCATION SYSTEM IS READY FOR REFORM SCHOOL

FOR ONCE, BIG BUSINESS AND EDUCATORS ARE IN CONCERT. BUT WILL LAWMAKERS FACE THE MUSIC

The educators were wary of big business, partly because ABLE had opposed the ACE Initiative, the 1990 ballot proposition designed to hot-wire the educators more money, and partly because early ABLE platforms called for voucher-system experiments--which educators view as a government subsidy for rich folks, private-school brats and Catholics.

"We haven't always been friends," understates Kay Lybeck, president of the Arizona Education Association, a teachers' union. "But my people are the ones who are going to have to change. It's not just an exercise and intellectual discussion. The people I represent are the people who have to do the work."
Further complicating the seating arrangements were divisions within each camp. Teachers and administrators aren't natural allies, for example, and some businessmen were--and still are--more hard-line about issues such as voucher-system experiments and fund-free reform. To break the ice, a mediator was brought in from outside the state. (It's how they do things in business," says one participant. "When you hit a rough spot, you hire a consultant.") The consultant, Patrick Dolan, a Ph.D. from Overland Park, Kansas, managed to at least get conversation started. @rule:

@body:Dolan's ice-breaking eventually became Senate Bill 1101, clearly a compromise measure built to fly. But the bill got off the ground too late. The legislature was already en route to early adjournment (97 days and out, instead of sticking around until July); the budget had been passed, and the legislature's real work was done. Reformers grew concerned that rushing legislators at such a late hour would result in bunches of "no" votes--and another completely negative outcome for the session. So they backed off the bill. Also in the political mix were agitators who hadn't fully joined in the let's-help-the-kids mood. A scathing critique of 1101, drafted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, circulated around the Capitol while the bill still lived.

ABLE and its new friends decided to declare their newfound coalition a moral victory, then called it a session.

"Never before in the history of Arizona have the warring factions--business advocates for reform and teachers, school administrators and school boards--come so close in a room to develop a product that most people would agree is good for kids," schmoozes APS' Marty Shultz. Adds Malcolm Craig, ABLE member and retired president of the Garrett Engine Division of Allied Signal: "It was an extraordinary event, without question." However historic--and education-reform experts from outside the state are typically shocked to learn that such a coalition could form anywhere--it was merely a symbolic victory for ABLE and its new allies. "Education reform has had more headlines with the word 'dead' in them than anything we've ever done," says Representative Graham.

@rule:
@body:For weeks after the regular session ended, reform participants jawed about their next move. Some of the players believed it would be best to lay back and wait for the next regular session. A significant faction of reformers and lawmakers believed that Arizona's complicated school-funding formula needed a rewrite before the reforms could pass, and planned to tackle those long numerical columns over the summer.

Others, concerned that the coalition would wilt in the heat, pushed for a special session to capitalize on the reform coalition's inertia. And now there is serious talk of a special session being called for late summer to consider elements of 1101.

The statewide reforms that would be considered in a special session are not exactly on the leading edge of education theory. Some of the fix-up measures considered by the legislature the past couple of sessions have been in place elsewhere for years. Decentralization, best described as a management philosophy that removes some decision-making responsibilities from school boards and superintendents and gives them to teachers, parents and principals--and one of the key pieces of reform Arizona's legislature can't manage to pass--has been operating somewhat successfully in Miami, Florida, for a decade.

More surprising, though, unofficial school reform is everywhere in Arizona. Some school districts sniffed the reform wind years ago and steered toward change. The key elements of balky SB 1101--decentralization," "school choice" and increased funding for at-risk students--can be evaluated based on their performance right here, right now.

But first, some definitions. ù Decentralization: This is a theory of management designed to reduce "top-down" decision-making, an ancient military model by which generals direct troops and troops take the directions, which often lead to their deaths. American business believes it has reformed itself by eliminating top-down management over the past couple of decades, and believes it can work for schools.

In theory, wasteful bureaucracy is eliminated by decentralizing schools. Districts and school boards will retain some functions--transportation, food, insurance--leaving other decisions and management problems to teams of teachers, parents and administrators at individual schools. Those decisions will include hiring teachers, mapping curricula and doling out discipline, among other tasks.

"Decisions made closest to the kids are better decisions," says teachers' union official Kay Lybeck, summing it up. ù School choice: This reform theoretically allows students to pick the public school of their choice within or without their current district, and have funding follow them. Choice proponents see it as a way to foster competition between schools, which would cause bad schools to shape up. Choice opponents say bright kids--or kids with bright parents--will depart troubled schools, taking their funding with them.

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