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Decisive Legislative Battle on Choice Looms in California

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The nationwide debate over parental choice in education may be heading for a decisive battle in the California legislature next year.

Adoption of a statewide choice plan in California, with its 4.6 million public-school students, would be by far the most significant victory yet for proponents of allowing parents to select their children's public schools. Five states--Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Ohio--currently have statewide "open enrollment" programs.

The prospects for choice legislation in California appear to be good. The state's Republican Governor, George Deukmejian, its Democratic state superintendent, Bill Honig, and a number of business and other interest groups have indicated support for choice proposals.

But the factors that stymied passage of such measures in the last session of the legislature will also be operating when lawmakers reconvene in January. Chief among them is the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, which is strongly opposed to any proposals that would allow students to transfer between school districts.

In addition, concerns about the effects of choice on tight education budgets are dampening enthusiasm for the idea. And, as elsewhere around the country, many lawmakers are worried about whether choice could undermine efforts to achieve educational equity and desegregation.

Some school districts in the state already have choice plans in effect--including Richmond, where the U.S. Education Department concluded a series of regional hearings on the issue last week. (See story on page 19.)

Teresa Hughes, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly's Education Committee, summed up the potential intensity of next year's debate in announcing a recent interim committee hearing on the issue: "Emotions have flared over the feasibility of education choice in our public schools. ... [T]his movement could become the major divisive education issue of the 1990's."

Eight Bills on the Table

Eight choice bills are currently under consideration.

Assemblywoman Marian W. LaFollette, a Republican member of the education panel, has proposed a bill that would allow open enrollment both within and between districts, with the provision that schools offer low-income students first choice at 25 percent of the openings.

The measure would also give low-income students 21.5 cents per mile to aid in transportation costs.

Mr. Honig has drafted a bill along with Assemblyman Charles W. Bader, another GOP member of the education committee. It would require all districts to adopt open-enrollment policies within district boundaries, and would open up cross-district transfers except when they would upset a desegregation plan.

"Mr. Honig favors choice as one of the many pressure points that can be put on schools to bring about educational improvement," said William Rukeyser, his spokesman.

The plan would set an annual limit on the number of students who could leave a district and would require districts to admit students on a impartial basis, such as through a lottery.

The California Business Roundtable is also expected to be a major advocate of choice, as part of a wide-ranging package of educational changes. The Roundtable has played a key role in passage of school reforms in recent years.

Ballot Initiative Ahead?

Governor Deukmejian has generally endorsed parental choice, but not a specific bill. At the Richmond hearing, Mr. Deukmejian remarked that he favors transfers within districts more than across district lines because of transportation problems.

Peter G. Mehas, the Governor's education-policy analyst, said that Mr. Deukmejian will be most concerned next year with the fiscal implications of choice proposals, due to an expected tight budget.

"The one thing that would demote the chances for success is the price tag of these proposals," Mr. Mehas said.

A cta spokesman said last week the organization remains opposed to choice plans, specifically those that encourage interdistrict transfers. He added that the union supports some choice within a district, through such programs as magnet schools.

Ms. LaFollette predicted that, if the legislature does not approve some kind of choice option, the issue will be given to the voters in the form of a ballot initiative--where proponents will be able to take advantage of the substantial public support for the idea, as reflected in public-opinion polls.

Mr. Rukeyser also said that as the issue has gained more national prominence, support for choice has grown in the legislature. "There are many more people in favor of choice now than a year ago," he said, "and legislators respond to a change in the landscape as much as everyone else does."

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