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New Jersey Lawmakers Kill 'Bankruptcy' Bill

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The New Jersey Senate handed Gov. Thomas H. Kean a major defeat late last week when it narrowly voted down controversial legislation that would have allowed the state to assume unprecedented control over "academically bankrupt" school districts.

Passage of the two-bill package had been one of the influential Republican Governor's top priorities for the current legislative session. The legislation also had the strong backing of Saul Cooperman, the state's commissioner of education.

But the intervention plan was met with strong opposition from the powerful state affiliate of the National Education Association and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

The 21-to-18 vote by the Democratic-controlled Senate on Sept. 10 came after intense last-minute lobbying by both proponents and opponents of the measure, and a prolonged floor debate.

As proposed, the plan would have required state officials to take complete control of academically failing districts for at least five years, dismissing all of the systems' school-board members and top administrators.

Opposition to the measure centered on a provision that would have also required a state-appointed superintendent to review the status of all principals in such districts and decide within a year whether to retain or fire them, thus sidestepping current tenure protections.

'A Defeat for Poor Children'

"The vote was a defeat for poor children and a victory for those who say these children can't be educated," Mr. Kean said following the vote.

He blamed the defeat on "a nefarious coalition" that is "in selfish bondage to the njea"

The bills' opponents, he said, "are protecting political hacks who are principals and serve on schools boards."

Dennis Giordano, president of the 124,000-member njea, called the Governor's remarks "unfortunate."

"We were defending the principle of the tenure statute," Mr. Giordano said of his union's efforts to block the legislation. "I don't believe any intrusion into [the tenure] law should be tolerated. That law was designed to avoid this kind of political interference."

Mr. Giordano said the union has "favored intervention" but was "never happy about the bill that was put forward."

"There is nothing in this bill that would even suggest it could ameliorate the problems of urban education," he said.

Amended Version Vetoed

Last spring, the Senate passed an amended version of the bill that8reinstated tenure protections for principals and district administrators. It also contained a provision requiring the state to provide substandard districts with additional funding before proceeding with intervention.

In a procedural move, the Republican-controlled Assembly--which had already approved the original version of the plan--concurred with the Senate's changes and sent the amended bill to the Governor's desk.

Mr. Kean immediately slapped a conditional veto on the bill and sent it back to the legislature for reconsideration in its original form. Before recessing for the summer, the Assembly narrowly sustained the conditions of the veto.

"In balancing the rights of the children held hostage in pervasively deficient school systems with those of the educational leaders who claim to have been serving those children," the Governor said in his veto message, "I must come down on the side of the children."

Mr. Kean has been a national advocate for state intervention in academically failing districts. The National Governors' Association followed his lead last year when it endorsed the concept in its report, Time For Results.

New Jersey currently has limited legal authority to intervene in a district's operations. The legislation, state officials said, would have given the state broader authority and would have streamlined the takeover process.

Mr. Kean has said, however, that he intends to proceed with state intervention with or without the legislation.

"There is no question of going back now," said Richard P. Mills, special assistant to the Governor for education. "He is going to do everything he can to carry out the constitutional mandate that those children have a right to an education that means something."

"The route that will be taken will be left to the legal experts to determine," he added.

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