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Four State School Chiefs Face Tough Re-Election Challenges

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Four state school superintendents, all Democrats, are facing significant challenges from Republican opponents in their bids for re-election next month.

Hard-fought campaigns in Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, and Wyoming could turn on such issues as the progress of school reform, observers say.

In addition to those four contests, Werner Rogers of Georgia and Norma Paulus of Oregon will be unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Perhaps the most controversial race is in South Carolina, where Barbara Neilsen, a former teacher, is trying to take away the job that Charlie G. Williams has held since 1979.

In seeking a fourth term, Mr. Williams is stressing his role in initiatives that made South Carolina a leading education-reform state during the 1980's.

"Since he has been superintendent, dramatic education improvements have been made," argued his campaign manager, Peter O'Boyle. "He initiated programs that became the Education Improvement Act, giving schools extra money and increasing salaries."

But Ms. Neilsen points out that, even after years of reform, South Carolina still ranks last in the nation in average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. She also cites a Gallup Poll showing that only 6 percent of South Carolinians considered the quality of education in the state to be excellent.

The challenger enjoys a number of other political advantages as well. Her well-funded campaign is able to buy television time, and she will be running on the gop ticket along with Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., who is expected to score a landslide re-election victory.

Bishop Bounces Back

In Arizona, Superintendent of8Public Instruction C. Diane Bishop is trying to bounce back from a difficult personal year by fending off a challenge from Bob Miller, a former professor of vocational education.

Ms. Bishop was hospitalized early this year from a reported drug reaction, and later was the target of conflict-of-interest allegations concerning her husband, a University of Arizona professor. State officials subsequently cleared her of wrongdoing, however.

An Arizona Republic poll last month found the two candidates to be dead even in support, with a large block of undecided voters.

Mr. Nelson argues that Ms. Bishop has been part of the education establishment too long to understand the need for major changes in the schools, and points to state officials' current investigation of the education department for fraud. The alleged misuse of federal funds, however, occurred before Ms. Bishop took office.

Ms. Bishop has sought to portray Mr. Nelson as a follower of former Gov. Evan Mecham, who was impeached by the legislature in 1988 and defeated in a comeback bid in the Republican primary last month. Her campaign manager, Bob Grossfield, said that she has been picking up support from members of the state's Republican Party, which is deeply divided over Mr. Mecham's ultra-conservative views.

Mr. Miller opposes a proposal on next month's ballot to form a classroom-improvement program requiring the state to increase spending by $100 per pupil each year for the next 10 years.

Ms. Bishop is neutral on the initiative, saying she supports more school money but believes the plan lacks accountability.

Tight Race in Wyoming

Another tight race is in Wyoming, where Superintendent Lynn O. Simons is being challenged by a former elementary-school principal, Diane Ohman.

Ms. Simons' campaign manager, Stan Olsen, portrayed her as the more experienced candidate and credited her with helping produce the strong performance of Wyo4ming's schools and students.

But Ms. Ohman argues that the state education department is doing a poor job of helping schools implement new accreditation standards adopted this year, while it has only made minimal efforts to help school districts find teaching and curricular strategies to meet the standards.

In Florida, Commissioner of Education Betty Castor appears to have a comfortable lead over her opponent, former Gov. Claude Kirk. A September poll showed Ms. Castor with 49 percent to Mr. Kirk's 27 percent, according to the incumbent's campaign manager, Sherri Bryan.

Mr. Kirk, who served as Governor from 1967 to 1971, argues that churches should get $50 a person to recruit and teach dropouts and make up to $1,000 if the person gets a high-school equivalency degree. He also calls for improved dropout-prevention programs in the school system, which now suffers one of the nation's worst dropout rates.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California was re-elected to a third four-year term in June by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in a nonpartisan primary.

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