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New School Code Fails Once More In Pennsylvania

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Harrisburg, Pa--The latest in nearly a decade of attempts to rewrite Pennsylvania's comprehensive school code went further this legislative session than in previous years, but the legislature adjourned without enacting any final changes.

The House of Representatives passed revisions to the code in September. But the ambitious task stalled when the General Assembly adjourned on Nov. 30, before the full Senate could consider the bill. Nonetheless, it was the first time since the early 1970's that a measure designed to update the 530-page, 1949 document reached the state senate.

The most controversial element of the new code would have given local school boards unlimited powers to set school policy, except where prohibited by state law.

This would have reversed the state's so-called Dillon's Rule, a judicial decision that grants local authorities only those powers that are specifically given to them under state law. This change, however, was stricken from the new code by the Senate Rules Committee.

Other Revisions

Among the other revisions were proposals to shorten the terms of board of education members from six to four years, to permit teacher layoffs for economic reasons, and to prohibit the state secretary of education from withholding funds from districts without an appeals process.

State Senator Ralph Hess, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, attributed the bill's failure to time constraints.

"Had we not had all the other priority issues ... I do think it would have passed," he said.

Mr. Hess said that the revision effort most likely would be restructured during the next session but that it would take a "miracle" for it to survive.

"The only way it will pass is if we give away the store to special-interest groups, and I won't do that," he said. "My attitude and the key responsibility is recodification and not to deal with every special-interest group that wants something and uses this as a vehicle to get it."

Lawmakers and educators say legislation is needed to consolidate laws, now scattered throughout Pennsylvania's statute books, governing the state's 501 school districts. They say the current school code, written in 1911 and amended in 1949, is out of date and needs to be revised to avoid confusion, to clarify legal responsibilities, and to extend more authority over educational policy to school districts.

--Lisa Stein

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