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Kean Unveils Proposal To Experiment With Three Varieties of School Choice

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In what he described as New Jersey's version of "perestroika," Gov. Thomas H. Kean last week announced a three-part, three-year plan to experiment with parental choice in public schools.

Under the long-awaited trial program, which will be voluntary, parents in the six districts to be chosen for participation in the experiment will be allowed their choice of any school within their district.

A second program within the plan will offer a limited number of dropouts their choice of any public school in the state if they return to complete their diploma.

Called Project Attain, the dropout provision represents an expansion of an existing program. It would increase the educational options for about 500 dropouts in its first year, with state funding to follow the returning student to any public high school, vocational or adult school, or postsecondary institution.

The third part of the Kean plan would allow 11th- and 12th-grade students to take up to two courses per semester at both public and private state colleges participating in the program, with the state paying tuition costs.

In a statement last week, the Governor described the program as a "modest" one with "revolutionary potential." It would cost the state about $600,000 the first year, and about $3 million each year thereafter, he said.

"Taken together, these three initiatives amount to a genuine test-run for choice in New Jersey," Mr. Kean said, noting that state officials had spent more than a year studying various choice programs across the country.

The plan--which, if funded, would begin in September 1990--will not include elements of school choice Governor Kean has opposed since first initiating a study of the issue last year: vouchers, tuition tax credits, and the inclusion of private schools among open-enrollment options.

State lawmakers have voiced concern, however, that the program would be too costly in light of the state's already tightly stretched budget.

Last week, the Governor announced that lower-than-anticipated tax collections could result in a $230-million revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year and a $268-million budget gap in fiscal 1991.

The state's fiscal situation could be complicated even more if the New Jersey supreme court should vote to declare the state's school-finance system unconstitutional. The high court recently agreed to hear a suit challenging the system. (See related story, this page.)

Assemblyman Joseph Palaia, chairman of the House education committee and a former school principal, said he had many reservations about the idea of parental choice. It could destroy the continuity of education for some students, he maintained, as well as limit diversity.

Funding the plan, the assemblyman said, will be "a real problem."

"I would rather see the Governor drop some of these initiatives and fully fund education," he said.

The most costly of the trial proposals is the intradistrict choice initiative, which is designed to encourage the creation of magnet schools that center around a specialized curriculum.

Under the plan, the six districts chosen to participate would be offered state grants to transform schools into magnet programs, according to Maria O'Brien, a project specialist for the state education department.

In the first year, the grants would total $50,000 for one magnet school, $75,000 for two, and $100,000 for three or more. The grants would increase by $100,000 in the second and third year of the program.

The grants would also cover transportation costs for students traveling across the district.

In a separate development, the Governor last week modified his controversial proposal to eliminate high-school physical-education requirements in public schools.

Mr. Kean said he would support a new proposal, expected to be intro8duced soon in the legislature, that would require physical education in the 9th grade only. The bill would also require each school to offer fitness courses as electives for every grade.

Mr. Palaia said he would hold public hearings on the new proposal in coming months.

The Governor last week also proposed a new state initiative to improve mathematics education in elementary schools.

As presented to the state board of education, Project prism, or Partners for Radical Improvement of School Mathematics, would target three "problem areas" of math education identified by a National Assessment of Educational Progress report last year: ineffective curriculum, inadequate teacher training, and limited learning time.

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