I had a great deal of empathy for the State School Board recently.

I knew just how they felt as they faced the superintendents of several school districts who asked that they be given more leeway in spending some of the money that comes to them from the state.I've had the same feeling the day each of my children has headed out the door for his/her first solo flight in the family auto.

It's a terrible feeling to know this little one I've nurtured for almost a score of years can function independently - that without my direct guidance he can take giant steps into the adult world. That a mother is, after all, expendable over time - at least in her role as boss and dictator. That in the grand scheme of things, if all goes well, she ultimately becomes a friend and benign counselor instead.

There's change in the wind in education, and there's evidence that reform happens best at the lowest possible level.

If the literature coming across my desk is a good indicator, some of the most impressive progress is made when districts and even individual schools are given a bit of rein to choose their own direction.

That means that state education directors might have to take a step to the side, swallow the lump in their throats, and watch their charges hop into the driver's seat.

Utah has taken a small step in that direction with the block grant program. Six districts will receive some of their money this year with the categorical strings snipped.

They will be able to decide how best to use the money to meet the particular needs of their districts. If the program succeeds over the next couple of years, the policy might be extended to all districts.

At least one of the pilot districts - Salt Lake - plans to experiment with some new educational styles that will move more of the decision-making to the individual school site.

If the thrust toward decentralization continues, it portends a new role for the State School Board.

That there will always be a role for a state organization is evident. Someone must be responsible for statewide policy decisions and for channeling money from federal and state sources.

The state office has accumulated expertise in many aspects of education. Acting as a wise parent, the office could enrich, guide, and support local education in non-dictatorial ways that would enhance the educational opportunity for Utah children.

The role of wise parents may even extend to standing by while some mistakes are made. If I might continue the analogy of the family car, there's many a fender dinged en route to maturity as a driver.

Obviously the state board must retain responsibility for the quality of education in Utah. It's that feeling of responsibility that makes parents - and school boards - hold their breaths as the taddies skip off with the car keys.

The state cannot shrug off that responsibility and must retain the ability to pull a district up short if education in that district is not meeting the state's expectations.

But a mutually respectful and trusting relationship among the various levels of education could be the greatest possible spur to improvement.