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Massachusetts Legislature Debates School-Reform Bill

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A sweeping education-reform bill, which proponents say would give Massachusetts the strongest school standards in the country, is winding its way through the state's House and Senate, delayed by debate and amendments every step of the way.

The legislation, which House lawmakers have again held over for a vote this week amid last-minute changes, includes proposals ranging from minimum teachers' salaries to statewide graduation requirements. It was two years in the making and is actually the third version of an education-reform package first initiated in 1982 by the House Education Committee, according to Peter Blanchard, press officer for the legislature's joint education committee.

The joint committee agreed on a bill last December after hearing tes-timony from about 600 people, Mr. Blanchard said. That bill was then revised and sent to the House Ways and Means Committee in June, where it sat until after the lawmakers' three-month election-year break.

Issues Still Pending

Floor debate finally began Nov. 12, and as of late last week the major issues still being considered were increases in salaries for veteran teachers, early-childhood-education programs, and early-retirement programs. Legislators hope to have a completed reform package through both the House and the Senate and ready for the governor's signature by the end of the year.

The bill that came out of the House Ways and Means Committee was developed by Rep. James Collins, chairman of the House Education Committee. It is estimated to cost about $565 million over three years.

Critics argue, however, that legislators are drastically underestimating the costs.

An amendment adopted early in the debate would earmark 20 percent of revenues from the state's 5-percent sales tax for the legislation, Mr. Blanchard said. Susan Lane, deputy director for Gov. Michael S. Dukakis's office on educational affairs, said that revenue source should bring in about $270 million a year.

Major Provisions

As of late last week, the bill's major provisions included:

A statewide minimum teachers' salary of $18,000, with a corresponding "ripple" effect on teachers already making more than the minimum. Based on the projected $18,000 minimum, veteran teachers would receive pay raises of about 24 percent, or a total of $336 million over the next three years, Mr. Blanchard said. The cost of raising minimum salary levels is estimated at $12 million annually.

Still being debated is how the ripple will be included--whether it will be implemented in one year or phased in over a three-year period.

An early-retirement program that would allow teachers to retire with 80 percent of their pension benefits at 55 rather than 62, if they raise their pension contributions proportionately prior to retirement, Mr. Blanchard said.

Ms. Lane said the early-retirement provision could mean the state would be liable for about $700 million in unfunded pension liability in the first year. She said the Governor believes the program should be studied before being implemented.

Tougher teacher-certification standards. Mr. Blanchard said new teachers may be put on probationary status, then after five years moved to a permanent status. He also said amendments to the bill would require every teacher to take a competency test by 1988 and be evaluated at least every two years.

A statewide assessment program in the elementary, early secondary, and 11th or 12th grades. A basic-skills test would also be offered in early elementary grades chosen by local school districts and in late elementary and secondary grades, as decided by the state board.

An early-childhood-education program, totaling about $47 million over the next three years. It would require local school districts to offer both preschool programs and programs between kindergarten and 1st grade for those children who had difficulty in kindergarten.

Ms. Lane said local school districts could contract out to a private day-care agency, instead of establishing their own program. She also said the Governor would prefer that a needs assessment be conducted before the programs are mandated.

A core-curriculum requirement. Currently, Massachusetts only requires two courses, physical education and U.S. history. The new bill would require that certain subjects be included in every curriculum, such as English, mathematics, and computer technology. However, the bill does not stipulate the number of courses in each subject that a school must offer.

Graduation requirements. The state board would determine the minimum curriculum required for a high-school diploma and the local school district could establish additional standards beyond that. Also, schools would be required to offer the opportunity for students to receive a high-school diploma until the age of 22.

A computer-training program for teachers and students. Some $34 million over three years would be set aside for computer instruction and software development. The state would also purchase about 74,000 computers, subject to appropriation votes, Mr. Blanchard said.

An upper class-size limit. The bill would limit kindergarten classes to a maximum of 20 students, to 25 in 1st through 3rd grade, and to 28 in 4th through 6th grade. No maximum class size was set for the secondary level. This provision was amended so that a local school system could receive a waiver if it could prove such a mandate would create a hardship.

A financial-equalization program for poorer communities. The bill provides for "Equal Educational Opportunity" grants totaling $35 million in 1986 and $65 million in 1987, for the purpose of reducing disparities in per-pupil spending.

Urban Partnership Programs. Under a statewide expansion of the Boston Compact, schools would agree to improve basic competencies and attendance, and businesses would agree to offer entry-level jobs to graduates of Massachusetts public schools. It would be funded with state school-improvement funds.

'No Conceptual Differences'

Spokesmen for both the Governor's office and Representative Collins's office said last week that there are no "conceptual differences" between the two on the legislation.

Ms. Lane said the Governor's con-cern is that any education reform help "build in equality throughout the system."

"We have to maintain equality in the system of public education," she said, "and not allow one district to be able to provide much better education than another."

"We just feel the bill is doing too much too quickly," said Donna Hartlage, deputy policy coordinator in the Governor's office of educational affairs.

Mr. Blanchard said, "The real difference [between the two versions] is how much and how soon. Other than that, we're pretty close."

Union Reaction

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers both say they are "generally pleased" with the bill.

"I think the main thing the bill does, [is that it] continues Massachusetts on a validly progressive course for public education," said Jack Polidori, communications consultant for the 60,000-member National Education Association affiliate.

"From the teachers' point of view," he said, "it provides the resources and wherewithal for school districts to improve and initiate programs they had to put on hold because of Proposition 2," the 1980 statewide tax-limitation initiative.

Joan Buckley, director of organization for the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, said the union is generally supportive of the bill and believes it is "critical that the state increase curriculum standards and increase funding for education."

Ms. Buckley said, however, that the 15,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers finds the amendment that would require competency testing for current employees "insulting."

Ms. Buckley contended that there are evaluation procedures already in effect to weed out incompetent teachers.

Tax Increase?

Some organizations representing the state's cities and towns fear the new bill will mean higher taxes.

Daniel Soyer, communications director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his organization estimates that the cost of implementing the provisions, especially the minimum salary, will cost the state about $550 million in the fiscal year 1987 alone.

"We certainly agree with one of the driving forces behind the legislation--that the state and municipalities can do more to improve the quality of education in Massachusetts," he said. "But the bill has changed focus. We thought it would articulate excellence standards and the means of achieving them. It has become a rather broad and less refined piece of legislation, whose only clear impact will be to put a lot more money out there into teachers' salaries."

The debate on the bill is far from over. After the House, it moves on to the Senate, where, Ms. Lane said, major revisions are expected.

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