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Texas Commission Proposes Reforms With $2.4- Billion Price Tag

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Dallas--The dramatic education reforms proposed by a governor's commission studying the Texas public schools would cost more than $2.4 billion during the first year, according to preliminary estimates developed by the state comptroller's staff.

The estimates came shortly after the Texas Select Committee on Public Education finished the first stage of its work last week by proposing sweeping changes in the state's public schools.

Appointed last year by Gov. Mark White and headed by the industrialist H. Ross Perot, the committee has been the focus of much attention in Texas because both the Governor and state education officials have said they expect its recommendations to be the basis of reform proposals in the next legislative session. That attention peaked during a series of public forums held by the committee, during which some of its controversial proposals were heatedly debated.

The panel's wide-ranging recommendations include:

Education management: Replacing the 27-member, elected State Board of Education with a nine-member panel appointed by the Governor; allowing the state board to set minimum standards for education; requiring local school districts to submit an annual report to the state; setting up a uniform accounting system for all school districts that would show how money is spent; and transferring responsibility for interscholastic sports from the University of Texas to the state board of education.

Teachers: Discharging all teachers who cannot pass a basic-skills test; establishing a four-rung career ladder for teachers and raising the minimum beginning salary to $1,520 per month; and developing alternate certification routes that allow teachers to become certified without attending a college of education.

Programs and curriculum: Requiring a single, academic course of study for all students in Texas public schools, and restricting extracurricular activities to after school; eliminating, through changes in funding formulas, most vocational-education programs; extending the school year; requiring after-school tutoring for all elementary students who are behind in any subject; requiring schools to offer pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds; and annual testing of all students.

Calling the proposals a "wish list" of education reforms, Mr. Perot said the committee will meet again in April to pare back the recommendations to a level that its members believe the state can reasonably afford. They will then hand their final plan to Governor White and the Texas Legislature.

Eight of the proposals, however, have already won the endorsement of Governor White, Mr. Lewis, Lt. Gov. William Hobby, and Comptroller Bob Bullock. They include the career ladder for teachers, alternate teacher-certification paths, annual testing of all students, and the provision that the state board can set minimum standards. The officials joined Mr. Perot last week in proposing the changes.

Observers noted last week that their support substantially improves the proposals' chances for legislative approval. Mr. Hobby said he had not polled the state Senate and could not predict whether the lawmakers would approve the changes. But a long-time lobbyist with the legislature observed that proposals backed by the Governor, the Lt. Governor, and the House Speaker seldom lose.

"The real question," Mr. Hobby added, "is the tax bill to pay for all this. As important as education is, it is not our only area of concern. We have a crumbling highway system, serious problems with our prison system, and welfare costs that are going up very rapidly."

House Speaker Gib Lewis said he believed the state should be able to raise about $1.5 billion a year in new funds to finance education improvement. State officials estimate the state will spend about $4.4 billion on education this school year.

Controversy Expected

Governor White said that in his view an appointed board is necessary if the reforms are to be effectively carried out.

"What we're trying to do is to change things so we won't drift back into the situation we're trying to change," Governor White said.

The state leaders said they hoped their solid support would be sufficient to push the state-board measure through the legislature. Mr. Hobby added, "I think it'll be the most controversial--the only controversial--recommendation."

Opponents of the measure argue that the interests of Texas citizens are best served by an elected school board. "The elected state board gives the people control of their school system from the top to the bottom," said Will Davis, a committee member and member of the state board of education. An appointed board would be "delivering control of the public schools to a partisan, political system," he said, predicting that appointees would be "rewarded for the money they gave or the votes they delivered."

But Lt. Governor Hobby said opponents of the measure missed a key point. "The issue here is accountability," he said. Education is a primary responsibility of the state, he said, but those directing education are not now accountable to the state's chief executive.

Testing and Tracks

Under the panel's teacher-testing plan, teachers who fail a test in their subject area would be barred from teaching that subject until they passed the test. Those who failed the basic-skills test would not have their contract renewed when it expired.

Under the proposal, which was adopted unanimously by the committee, the Texas Education Agency would be required to develop basic competency and subject-area tests for teachers. The state board, however, could substitute scores from other tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Although a minority of teachers--perhaps 10 percent--may be incompetent, Mr. Perot said, they affect thousands of students yearly and should be replaced.

"Those 20,000 teachers, if truly incompetent, damage 600,000 children a semester," said Mr. Perot, founder of the Dallas-based firm, Electronic Data Systems.

The panel also voted to require a single, academic course of study for all students in public schools. All high-school students, for example, would be required to take advanced mathematics courses that included algebra and geometry.

The select committee also proposed eliminating extra funding for school districts' vocational-education programs, requiring instead that the courses be paid for as other electives now are. The change would save the state an estimated $238 million annually, Mr. Perot said. According to committee members, it would also effectively elimi-nate vocational-education programs from most high schools.

Under the proposal, local school districts could choose to offer vocational-education programs, but the extra cost of those programs would have to come from local tax revenues.

Many districts would not have the money and would not be able to continue the programs, the committee's chairman pointed out. "That's the objective," he said. "I don't know of a more effective way to drive a stake through its heart. Local school districts can't afford it; it'll go."

"We have freed up an incredible number of dollars to be re-directed to academic learning," he noted.

"That's the intent," Lt. Governor Hobby said. "Twenty-three percent of all state aid flows through vocational-education programs [that are] of rather limited effect."

The committee also proposed lengthening the school year from 175 to 185 days, requiring a full seven-hour school day to be spent entirely on academics, with sports and other activities coming after school, reducing class size for students in grades K-4 from the statewide average of 25 to a maximum of 15 pupils for every teacher; and opening school doors to 4-year-olds for an optional prekindergarten program.

The proposed reduction would cost about $2.2 billion over the next two years, according to Mr. Bullock.

The state comptroller, who suggested that a ratio of 20 students to one teacher might be more realistic, was skeptical about the proposal.

"I don't think limiting it to 15 has a snowball's chance in hell," Mr. Bullock said. "We just don't have the money for it."

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