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Gardner's Once-Dead Choice Proposal Revived in Washington State Legislature

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By Debra Viadero

Given up for dead only a few weeks ago, Washington State legislation giving parents the option of enrolling their children in any public school in the state was still fighting for its life last week in the halls of the Capitol.

The open-enrollment bill, which Gov. Booth Gardner has called his "number one" education proposal this year, has already undergone what one legislative aide referred to as a "Perils of Pauline" odyssey.

Overwhelmingly approved by the House early in the session, the bill was quietly allowed to die late last month in the Senate education committee.

In its place, the Senate approved a bipartisan alternative calling for a two-year study of the issue with an eye toward eventual implementation of a statewide parental "choice" plan. After a series of legislative maneuvers, however, that bill came back to the Senate where it expired in the rules committee.

But on March 9--the first day of a special session--the original choice bill was revived by its sponsor, Representative W. Kim Peery, a Democrat from southwest Washington. He steered the bill to easy passage once again in the House.

And, as of last week, both Mr. Peery and Senator Cliff Bailey, the chairman of the Senate education committee, were working on separate efforts to find a middle ground between implementing and studying a choice plan.

"We're probably still two to three drafts away from getting something everyone can sit down and talk about," said Penny Drost, a spokesman for Senator Bailey.

Unanswered Questions

Under the parental-choice plan supported by the House and the Governor, state funds allotted for each transferring student's education would be given to his or her new school district.

Districts would retain the right to refuse transferring students by setting quotas on the number of students they wished to accept. They could also charge transfer fees of up to $300 for each student to equalize tax-levy differences between districts.

Another part of the proposal would allow high-school juniors and seniors to take some courses at community colleges, vocational institutes, and four-year colleges and universities at no cost.

The plan would take effect at the start of the 1992-93 school year.

Critics of the proposal--most notably associations representing the state's school-board members and administrators--said it leaves too many unanswered questions.

"The major concern is what will happen to small school districts that have student flight," said Senator Bailey, a Republican from Snohomish.

"What will happen to large districts? Will it decimate certain programs?" he asked. "What happens to the students left behind?"

Skeptics also contend the plan would unfairly discriminate against children whose parents are not informed enough or do not care enough to find out which schools would be best for them.

"We think it's foolhardy on our part to go to full choice without studying these issues," Mr. Bailey said.

Stalling Tactic Seen

Mr. Peery, however, contends that the proposal to study a choice plan is merely a way of stalling the issue.

"Clearly, we need to establish the timelines and the policy now to give students an opportunity to make changes in their educational plans."

Under existing state law, which provides for some limited student movement among districts, 24,000 pupils transferred last year to new school districts. Another 711 students had their requests for transfers turned down.

Governor Gardner has lobbied hard for an open-enrollment plan, arguing that it will empower parents to act when they believe their children's educational needs are not being met and force districts to become more competitive.

Districts stand to lose about $3,000 in state aid for every pupil who leaves.

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