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What's the No. 1 school concern? It depends on whom you ask

As the chalk dust settles on the spate of education reforms implemented over the last two years, local school districts are making room for required new courses by cutting or curtailing others. A recent national survey of individual school board members concludes that, hand in hand with efforts to add tougher, more academic courses, locally elected decisionmakers have chosen to reduce rather than eliminate electives. The survey, conducted by the American School Board Journal and Virginia Polytechnic Institute, indicates the following course reductions:

Music: a 12.1 percent reduction of music classes, with only 1.5 percent reporting outright elimination of any music program.

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Driver education: an 11.6 percent reduction; 5.4 percent terminated.

Art: a 9.6 percent reduction; 1.3 percent elimination.

Health and physical education: a 9.1 percent reduction; fewer than 1 percent reporting complete elimination of any such program.

Other: 7.2 percent of local school districts have cut back foreign language courses and 2.1 percent have eliminated any such offerings; 4.8 percent have curtailed and 1.2 percent have dropped courses for the gifted and talented; 4.5 percent report reducing courses in English and language arts.

Twenty percent of the survey respondents claimed an increase in their district for the amount of class time and homework required of students, as well as a lengthening of the school day (17.7 percent) and the school year (8.8 percent).

Lack of financial support headed the list of most pressing concerns for school board members, as it has for the last three years. Not surprisingly, but of just as much concern to board members, is the fact that the public gives a much lower priority rating to this problem, as indicated by a national Gallup poll. (See chart.) Lack of discipline, consistently rated the No. 1 problem by the public at large, ranks a distant eighth to school board members.

The local school board has traditionally been the cornerstone of authority for America's public schools. Nearly 16,000 independent and locally elected bodies are responsible for staffing and running the schools in the United States. But as the states step in to help local communities by paying an increasing share of the bill for public schools, the state money does not come without strings.

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Across the nation, state legislatures and education departments now play a larger role in determining education policy -- from early education requirements to credits needed for graduation, teacher-skills development and specific curriculum changes.

Nevertheless, many local school boards have had to learn to live with ``state mandates without accompanying state funds to carry out the mandates,'' says H. David Van Dyck, director of public relations for the New York State School Boards Association.

Individual reforms are welcome, says Carl Marlberger, senior associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education, a public school advocacy group based in Maryland. But he feels that the cumulative weight of them, the ``top down approach,'' has resulted in many schools ``being hampered even more by state legislative fiat than by the former complaints against the federal government.'' It raises fears about continued erosion of local control, he says.

By way of example Mr. Marlberger cites the state of Texas, which has gotten so involved at the local level as to mandate that the public address system be used only once a day in individual schools. Of greater concern, he says, is that urban areas will be hampered even more than suburban areas, since many of the reforms reflect the goals of a college-oriented middle class.

No one objects to these goals, says Marlberger. But what do you do with the students caught in between, who haven't had the preparation, he asks? He fears the dropout rate in urban schools may be heading for a sharp increase.

Overall, school board members are well educated. Two-thirds of those surveyed report taking four or more years of college. Fewer than 1 percent did not complete high school. About one-third of current school board members are women. More than 94 percent of school board members are married, with some two-thirds having children in public schools. Survey source:

The American School Board Journal, Jan. 1985. 1680 Duke Street, Alexandria, Va. 22314. (no charge.)

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor. Chart: Current priorities: boards vs. public. Reprinted with permission, from the American School Board Journal, January 1985. JOURNAL-Virginia Tech Survey* Concerns Totals Lack of financial support 62.6% Declining enrollment 39.8 Parents' lack of interest 32.9 Finding good teachers 21.7 Poor curriculum/standards 18.7 Teachers' lack of interest 16.3 Use of drugs 15.7 Lack of discipline 9.8 Disrespect for students/teachers 9.1 Pupils' lack of interest/truancy 8.6 Large schools/overcrowding 7.3 Integration/busing 2.5 Crime/vandalism 1.6 Other (write-ins):

Collective bargaining 9.0

Management/leadership 4.7

Facilities 3.8

Politics 3.7 Gallup Poll* Concerns: Totals -- Percent Lack of discipline 27% Use of drugs 18 Poor curriculum/standards 15 Lack of financial support 14 Finding good teachers 14 Integration/busing 6 Teachers' lack of interest 5 Parents' lack of interest 5 Low teacher salaries 4 Pupils' lack of interest/truancy 4 Drinking/alcoholism 4 Large schools/overcrowding 4 Disrespect for students/teachers 3 *Respondents to the JOURNAL-Virginia Tech survey were asked to indicate their top three concerns from those listed. The totals represent the percentage of respodents who checked that concern as one of their top three. Respondents to the Gallup Poll, on the other hand, were asked to name the biggest problems facing their public schools; they were not given answers to choose from. In both surveys, percentages total more than 100 because of multiple responses. Chart: PROFILE OF LOCAL SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS

Percentage ***

1983 1984 Sex Male 62.9% 61.7% Female 37.1 38.3 Ethnic Black 2.8 2.4 White 93.1 90.4 Hispanic 1.5 1.5 American Indian .8 1.5 Oriental .2 .5 Other 1.7 4.3 Age Under 25 .1 .5 26-35 9.4 8.8 36-40 17.7 18.7 41-50 37.3 43.3 51-60 24.8 20.8 Older than 60 10.7 7.9 Income Less than $20,000 8.1 3.6 $20,000-$29,999 18.4 18.6 $30,000-$39,999 20.1 21.5 $40,000-$49,999 19.6 17.0 $50,000-$59,999 13.8 12.9 $60,000-$69,999 5.1 8.6 $70,000-$79,999 3.6 5.7 $80,000-$89,999 3.2 3.3 $90,000-$99,999 1.1 1.5 More than $100,000 6.8 7.0 *Percentages total more than 100 because of multiple responses. **Some percentages do not total 100 because of rounding. Reprinted, with permission, from the American School Board Journal January 1985. -- 30 --