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Open-Enrollment Option Is Approved in Nebraska

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Gov. Kay A. Orr of Nebraska signed legislation last week that will allow students to transfer to schools outside of their home districts beginning in the 1990-91 school year.

The open-enrollment bill was passed by the unicameral legislature by a vote of 27 to 20 despite the opposition from school administrators and rural districts.

The bill's chief sponsor, Senator Dennis G. Baack, expressed surprise that the legislature cleared the measure in the first year it was up for consideration. He said its critics may have been placated by provisions calling for the program to be phased in gradually and fine-tuned in future legislative sessions.

According to Mr. Baack, in speeches on the chamber's floor, even opponents of the bill "would get up and say they liked choice, but they just felt we were moving too fast."

Fourth in Nation

Passage of the measure makes Nebraska the fourth state to adopt a statewide open-enrollment program. Minnesota established the nation's first last year, and similar programs were approved earlier this year in Iowa and Arkansas.

Under the Nebraska bill, districts can accept transfer students on a voluntary basis during the program's first three years.

All districts will have the option to prohibit students from transferring in the programs's first year. In the second year, they may limit transfers to 5 percent of their enroll4ment, and in the third year to 10 percent of their enrollment. All limits on incoming and outgoing students will end in the program's fourth year.

James P. Havelka, president of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, said members of his organization opposed the measure because they feared it would jeopardize cooperative efforts between rural districts.

Rural Concerns

He also said rural educators felt the bill would simply redistribute state aid among districts without addressing the fact "that we do not have sufficient resources for our educational system as a whole."

Mr. Havelka said his organization ceased to lobby actively against the measure after its sponsors amended it to limit the financial strain on systems that will lose students.

That change, however, did not placate all of the bill's critics.

Senator Howard A. Lamb, for example, predicted the program eventually will have "a drastic effect" on local school budgets.

Districts that accept new students will not have enough money to cover the additional costs of educating8them, he said, and districts that lose students will not have enough money to cover fixed costs that will remain after students leave.

Senator Lamb also said the measure includes no method for determining the motives behind transfer decisions.

"As it stands right now, the parent or guardian can choose any reason and there is no body, no group, no person who makes a judgment as to whether or not it is a valid reason to change schools," he said.

Restructuring Bill Approved

In other action, the legislature approved a bill appropriating $200,000 to be distributed in grants to districts that locally develop plans to restructure schools.

Under the bill, the state will hold local and statewide forums to discuss restructuring initiatives such as public-private partnerships, citizen programs, and cooperative efforts between agencies.

Beginning in the 1990-91 school year, a commission representing the state, local school boards, administrators, and teachers will award incentive grants of up to $40,000 to districts to finance their restructuring plans. The program will be administered by the state department of education.

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