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Wash. Lawmakers Adopt School-Choice Package

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A month of negotiations during a special session of the Washington legislature has provided the extra time needed to secure passage of a comprehensive school-choice bill advocated by Gov. Booth Gardner.

The bill, which the Governor had declared dead during the regular session, will make Washington only the second state to mandate that all school districts adopt policies allowing intradistrict transfers by students, according to several observers of the school-choice movement. The only other state to do so is Ohio.

The legislature also created a new program designed to enhance the internship experiences of prospective teachers by pairing them with "cooperating teachers" chosen and trained jointly by school and college officials.

The Excellence in Teacher Preparation Program will provide a special stipend for all cooperating teachers, although the legislature did not set the amount or fund the stipends this year.

The program is based on the ideas propounded by John I. Goodlad, professor of education at the University of Washington and former president of the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education. He has argued that the training potential of most current teacher-internship programs is hampered by a lack of coordination between school districts and teacher-training institutions.

During the special session, the legislature also allocated $100 million in new money to virtually erase a backlog of school-construction needs, added a 15th step to the state's teacher-salary schedule, and earmarked an average of $1,000 per teacher for classroom supplies.

The school-choice package is intended to encourage parents to become more involved in their children's education, and to expand the range of options available to students, according to W. Kim Peery, chairman of the House committee on education and the measure's chief sponsor.

He and others say it will also complement an ongoing state program, called "Schools for the 21st Century," that is allowing a growing number of schools to earn waivers from existing state laws and regulations.

"This is the first state to tie together a formal and well-funded deregulation effort with schools of choice, and I think each encourages the other," said Joe Nathan, senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute for Public Policy at the University of Minnesota and one of the nation's leading experts on choice.

In devising a compromise choice bill that eliminated nearly all of the organized opposition from education groups, the legislature created a program that differs in several significant respects from open-enrollment bills passed recently in other states.

The measure grants only two groups of students an absolute right to leave their resident district: those who wish to transfer to a school that is "more accessible" to a parent's place of work or to child care, and those experiencing "a special hardship or detrimental condition."

In all other cases, a parent will be required to show that a financial, educational, safety, or health condition of the student will be "reasonably improved" as a result of the transfer.

Resident school districts are allowed to prevent students from leaving if their departure would adversely affect an existing desegregation plan.

School officials will be required to notify parents of the reasons transfer requests are denied, and parents will have the right to appeal the district's decision to the state superintendent of instruction, and ultimately, the state's court system.

"At least now there is some burden of discussion between parents and the resident district that there will be a benefit to the student by virtue of the transfer," said Dwayne Slate, assistant executive director of the Washington State School Directors' Association, which represents school-board members and led the opposition to the Governor's original choice proposal.

"We didn't see any benefit out of" unrestricted choice, he said, because it would not allow districts to balance the potential benefit to transferring students against the potential harm to students who remained in the district.

The measure will also allow junior-high students to accumulate high-school credits for high-school-level courses taken either at their home school or a high school.

In addition, it establishes a "Running Start" program that will allow high-school juniors and seniors to accumulate both college and high-school credits for courses taken at community colleges or state vocational-technical institutes.

The intradistrict-choice provision of the bill requires districts to establish a policy "allowing intradistrict enrollment options" by June 30, but does not mandate that districts open all schools to student transfers. Its language is similar to a measure passed in Ohio last year.

In another departure from other open-enrollment laws, the measure allows districts accepting transferring students to charge a "transfer fee" based on differences in local school-tax rates.

The state superintendent of public instruction is directed under the bill to study and recommend criteria districts can use in setting the transfer fees, which are not expected to exceed more than a few hundred dollars per student. The bill also calls for the legislature to pay the transfer fees of students from low-income families.

The superintendent is also required to recommend who should fund transportation for students, and to develop ways to inform parents about the options created under the bill.

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