The State as Partner: One Policy-Maker’s Story

“When a letter from ECS came across my desk inviting states to participate in Re:Learning I thought, ‘What a shame; I have seventeen other projects going and one more is just impossible,'” says Donna Wall, until recently the Commissioner of Schools for Pennsylvania and its Re:Learning coordinator. “Two days later, I got a copy of a letter from our secretary of education to Beverly Anderson at ECS, saying Pennsylvania would be delighted to participate and that I would be in charge! All it took was the governor’s confirmation and we were started.”

With such a dramatic move towards school reform handed to her from above, Wall–a former high school teacher herself–knew she had to muster support from the ranks of educators to succeed. “I called the state principals’ organization, because I believed so strongly that if a school is going to change the principal has to be excited about it,” she says. “Then I asked the Academy of Learning, which is part of our state system of higher education, to be involved. The principals invited Bob McCarthy of CES to give a presentation at the statewide meeting of secondary principals, and we invited as observers representatives of the state school boards association, the two teachers unions, and the superintendents group–about fifty people were there.”

Many questions remained after that brief presentation, of course. “We asked those who were interested to go back to their districts,” Wall says, “and talk to their superintendent, representatives from their teachers union, their school board, and their parents group. Then we planned a series of meetings over the year where they could come together at our expense and talk about what Essential Schools are all about. For the nine schools who expressed interest, we asked their commitment for a full year of planning before they decided to become an Essential School. We gave them $3,000 planning grants that first year. Then, for those who could make a written commitment to a year of formal planning approved by their board of education and signed off on by the principal, the superintendent, and the teachers union, we gave $25,000 for four teachers to have release time. In addition, the state reserved $50,000 for activities and presentations that could help all the schools involved to plan. This year, as those schools start up their programs, we’ll open it to another group of schools for the planning stage.” Each school is linked with the closest university in our state system, and a professor from the education department there works with them throughout the process, supported by a grant from the Academy for Teaching.

The state’s main role, as Wall sees it, is as partner to Re:Learning schools in overcoming any roadblocks state regulations pose. “Leadership and regulation are the state’s two main functions in education,” she says. “The leadership is in getting schools involved; and in this case regulation means subtracting rather than adding.”