Arizona Republic
December 17, 2006

Estimated printed pages: 4

You hear a lot about kids and attitude. But when it comes to education, it's the adults who have issues.

Proposals for reform have long been met with predictable dogmatic, partisan, self-interested bickering.

But the stakes are too high to let that continue. Just this past week:

* Time magazine's cover story began with a joke about Rip Van Winkle waking up from a long nap, unable to recognize anything but a classroom. The
message: Ain't it antiquated?

* Gov. Janet Napolitano's P-20 Council released its recommendations, calling for mandatory high-school attendance until age 18, increasing the math requirement, lowering the dropout rate and assessing whether high school juniors will be ready to become college freshmen. The message: Dumbing down AIMS wasn't the answer.

* The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued a report called "Tough Choices or Tough Times." It says, "Thirty years ago, the United States could lay claim to having 30 percent of the world's population of college students. Today that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to fall." The message: Unless we modernize education, America's standard of living will decline as more jobs are outsourced to better-educated workforces.

The need for comity and cooperation is crucial as Arizona approaches a legislative session during which the governor promises to keep the focus on education.

But by appointing state Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa to head the K-12 Education Committee, the Senate president has given the people of Arizona reason to wonder.

Johnson has a history of supporting ideas that don't pass the laugh test.
For example, she once tied up lawmakers' time with a proposal to warn people about the dangers of dental fillings. Earlier this month, she criticized a trilateral agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada as an attempt to impose a "shadow government" on the United States. Arizona could use someone a little more mainstream to vet education bills.

Things look better on the House side, where Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa will continue as chairman of the House K-12 Education Committee. He has shown a willingness to listen that has earned him respect from many educators.

Focus on goals, not disagreements

Napolitano and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne can be even more powerful leaders for change if they work together, both at the Legislature and with the state Board of Education. Horne opposes some of the P-20 Council recommendations, such as requiring a third or even fourth year of math. His warnings that this could lead to more students dropping out are worth considering.

It would be beneficial if Horne, a Republican, and Napolitano, a Democrat, worked out the details of their disagreements. The focus should be the larger goal of improving education and moving forward on some long-standing challenges.

Among these is the issue of how to educate children who do not speak English, which has festered for years. Court hearings are scheduled in early January in federal district court in Tucson on funding levels for English-language learners. It's the next act in a longstanding court case about how effectively Arizona educates as many as 150,000 school children who need to learn English before they can learn anything else.

Arizona cannot afford to leave these children behind. Unfortunately, this issue gets caught up in the rancorous debate over illegal immigration, even though many of these children are U.S. citizens.

Napolitano has established her education credentials by championing all-day kindergarten and pushing for more funding for English-language learners. By including a push to lower the dropout rate, her committee is targeting an important issue. That group, which includes wide membership from the education and business community, will provide leadership worth following.

The children who have the most at stake in these debates may not have a voice that carries to the floor of the Capitol complex. But their parents do and so will the members of the governor's committee.

The public can demand that lawmakers work together.

The need for cooperation extends beyond Arizona's borders.

Some revolutionary ideas worth a look

The "Tough Choices or Tough Times" report will send some people's blood pressure zooming. But it, too, should provide more than just another reason for interest groups to take up arms.

The bipartisan commission's suggestions include ending high school at 10th grade. From there, students would be tested and channeled into technical training or college prep. The money saved by eliminating 11th and 12th grades would go to overall improvements of the education system, such as raising pre-kindergarten programs and higher teacher salaries.

Not controversial enough?

The commission wants teachers to be employed directly by the state, not local districts. Funding would also bypass districts and go directly to the schools.

These recommendations are iconoclastic and revolutionary. That doesn't necessarily mean they are good. But they are worth discussing, maybe even trying on a pilot basis.

These ideas -- and the recommendations from Napolitano's group -- should not be lost in the self-serving battles that usually dominate discussions about public education.

With so many calls for rethinking education, the emphasis should be on the "thinking" part of the prescription.

The attitude should be cooperation.

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, whose Editorial Board consists of: Robert J. Dickey, John Zidich, Joanna Allhands, Steve Benson, Patricia Biggs, Phil Boas, Ward Bushee, Richard de Uriarte, Jennifer Dokes, Jeremy Dowell, Cindy Hernandez, Kathleen Ingley, Robert Leger, Doug MacEachern, Gary Nelson, Joel Nilsson, Dan Nowicki, Robert Robb, Bob Schuster, Linda Valdez and Ken Western.

CAPTION: Math requirements in Arizona's schools have been one sticky issue that needs resolving in favor of student needs, not political stunts.
CAPTION: Gov. Janet Napolitano (top) and Tom Horne, state schools chief:
Together, they can be a formidable force for change.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Opinions
Page: V4