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A do-nothing summit

The governors' meeting, phonics battle, and the courts

The last time the nation's governors gathered at an education summit they hatched the idea that eventually led to President Clinton's Goals 2000 Act and biased national history standards. When the governors gathered again last week, responding to the call of IBM CEO Louis Gerstner and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, they limited their agenda to some safe subjects-technology and vague standards-and ignored vouchers, one of the cutting-edge issues in school reform.

That's easy to understand from IBM's perspective: The corporate behemoth has long spurned any reform policies that remove focus from the public schools. But Gov. Thompson's agreement to limit the agenda is a little harder to understand, since his state is in the forefront of the voucher movement.

The answer lies in the National Association of Governors, a group representing Republican governors and their Democratic colleagues; many of the Democrats owe their electoral success to support from teachers unions and would not accept an agenda that threatened their bread-and-butter support.

Though some participants grumbled about the narrow focus of the meeting, "they were told to stick to the topics," according to Karen Hughes, press spokeswoman for Texas Governor George Bush. "The governors were all told in advance [that they could talk about only] two topics: accountability and technology," she said.

The meeting took place at IBM's opulent Palisades, N.Y., compound. The corporate attenders paraded technological solutions to almost every imaginable classroom concern, things like datalinks between parents and teachers and computer-aided drafting programs that teach algebraic reasoning. Those high-tech displays may have caused governors' eyes to widen, but they also underscore the disconnect between the official view of what's happening in the schools and the reality. In some urban schools a principal may receive boxes of computers and printers and then wait months for the district to provide wiring to install them.

Though the summit proved to be more talk than action, that didn't disappoint some attenders: "There wasn't much action, but Gov. Bush didn't want any action, if it was going to amount to more federal involvement in education," said spokeswoman Ms. Hughes.

In addition to showing off the newest budget-busting electronic gadgets, the 41 governors and 49 CEOs in attendance reached the unsurprising conclusion that standards for students need to be imposed. Diane Ravitch, who served in President George Bush's Department of Education, noted that talk of tougher standards is cheap: "The biggest problem is that we have this big briefing book full of state standards developed over the last few years, and it's a lot of empty rhetoric."

Even President Clinton acknowledged that the groups charged with developing national standards over the past several years have in large part struck out. The drive for national standards hasn't gone away, but it is laying low for a while because of fierce grassroots opposition. Meanwhile, the group responsible for developing English standards put together a document that contained no standards but insisted on the benefits of "Whole Language," the reading method that teaches kids to guess at words in context.

That's about the only recent good news for the whole-language camp. California has just scrapped its mandatory statewide use of whole language after reading scores plummeted. Fifty-nine percent of the state's fourth-graders read below the minimum level in 1994, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only Louisiana's fourth-graders scored worse. Since 1987, when California adopted the whole-language standards, teachers have told stories about having to sneak contraband phonics-based materials into their classrooms. Texas is also moving away from whole language to an approach that encourages some use of phonics.

While vouchers failed to get much attention in Palisades, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Madison heard arguments in what could be a landmark case on the issue. When Gov. Thompson expanded that state's school choice program last year to include religious schools, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union took him to court. Gov. Thompson, fearing that the state's attorney general, a Democrat, wouldn't vigorously defend the law, hired attorney Kenneth Starr to argue the state's case. Mr. Starr, the independent counsel leading the Whitewater investigation, faced off against the NEA's top attorney, Robert H. Chanin. A ruling in the case is expected by June.

The courts will probably also become involved in a Utah battle. Some teachers there have formed the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Alliance, much to the displeasure of legislators who do not want public school employees flouting the state's sodomy statute. The Utah legislature voted to restrict public school employees from working to "encourage, condone, or support engaging in illegal conduct." House Speaker Melvin Brown, a Republican, said, "When a teacher, like a legislator, becomes a public figure, then I believe they have the responsibility to respect the value system of the community that hires them."

The teachers' action followed the Salt Lake City school board's decision earlier this year to ban all extracurricular clubs, rather than grant equal access to a club for homosexual students. On Feb. 23, hundreds of students staged a walk-out and a march to the state capitol; one demonstrator accidentally ran over another with a car (the student was seriously injured, but lived).

Homosexual activists say they'll fight the illegal conduct bill if it ever becomes law. And thus another school year is drawing to a close.

Roy Maynard

Roy Maynard

Roy is a former WORLD reporter.