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Tennessee Board Set To Approve Restructuring Plan

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The Tennessee state board of education was set late last week to adopt a comprehensive school-restructuring plan that includes a $3.3-billion final version of the five-year 21st Century Challenge program spearheaded by Gov. Ned McWherter.

The board was expected to lend its full support to the plan, which calls for major changes in the state's school-finance system and a wide range of other educational reforms.

Governor McWherter has said he will make passage of the program, which was assembled after a year of input from educators, his top priority during the 1991 session of the legislature. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1990.)

The centerpiece of the proposal, and its most expensive element by far, calls for increasing state aid in order to reduce disparities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poor school districts.

By the plan's final year, the state would provide 67 percent of education funding, compared with roughly 50 percent currently. Over five years, the increased aid would total $2.5 billion.

The state's existing school-finance system, which forces districts to rely heavily on local sales-tax receipts, is being challenged in court by 75 school districts.

The board's master plan would cost $334 million in its first year, with the annual total rising to $919 million when the plan is fully implemented in 1995-96. The average annual cost, about $654 million, is near the figure Mr. McWherter had said he would ask the legislature to provide in new revenue.

Among its restructuring provisions, the state board's plan recommends the following amounts, spread over five years: $42.8 million to reduce student-teacher ratios to 15-to-1 in grades K-3 at schools with high concentrations of poor students; $148 million for expanded early-childhood and school-based child-care programs; and $86 million for teacher training for restructuring.

The package presented to the state board also tackles some thorny political issues, including a proposal to require that local superintendents be appointed rather than elected.

"This is bold, but it represents some common sense in terms of where we are now and where we want to be," said Brent Poulton, executive director of the state board. "This plan touches on every aspect of the education enterprise."

Officials said Mr. McWherter, who has refrained from discussing specific options for funding the education reforms, will soon begin meeting with key lawmakers to decide how he can build a consensus for new revenues.--lh

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