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Wis. Panel Calls for Expansion of Private-School-Choice Plan

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Expansion of Wisconsin's much-debated private-school-choice plan for Milwaukee students and an end to that city's busing program for desegregation are among scores of recommendations for improving education that a state panel plans to issue this month.

The 76-member Commission on Schools for the 21st Century, appointed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, has already given tentative approval to a smorgasbord of more than 150 ideas, many of them controversial and costly.

The panelists also are expected to urge public-school open enrollment and to maintain that every teacher in the state should have a computer and a telephone in the classroom, every 5-year-old should be required to attend kindergarten, every school should serve breakfast, and every employer should be required to give employees time off from work to attend parent-teacher conferences.

"Obviously, some of these recommendations are not going to be easy to get through the legislature," said Ody Fish, the chairman of the bipartisan panel. "But if we're going to be shot down for any issue, I'd rather it was because we were too bold and not because we were not bold enough."

After giving initial approval to the proposals last month, the panel is holding hearings on the package this week and plans to take a final vote Dec. 21. But several commission members said they do not anticipate the recommendations will change significantly.

The proposals come at a time when the state is anticipating an $87-million shortfall in revenues this year.

"Legislators are expressing grave concerns about our ability to fund much of anything, let alone the kinds of spending envisioned by the commission," said Steven Dold, assistant superintendent for management and budget in the state education department.

Although the commission declined to include cost estimates in its final report, some experts have predicted that "if all the recommendations were enacted, the cost of education in Wisconsin would double," according to Karl Hertz, a local school superintendent who serves on the panel.

The commission's parental-choice proposals, which are expected to face opposition from the state teachers' union and other public educators, include several versions of the concept.

Under one such proposal, panel members recommend changing8state law to enable parents to send their children to public schools in districts other than the one in which they reside. The program would be optional for receiving school districts, but no district could prevent a pupil from leaving.

Another proposal would allow families to choose any public school within their own district.

The panel also recommends allowing 11th- and 12th-grade students to enroll in private or public postsecondary schools, with districts required to pay for their tuition and books.

In addition, the panel urges expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program to three other districts on a pilot basis. The program, which provides state-funded vouchers to enable poor children to attend private, non-religious schools, was struck down last month by a state appellate court. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1990.)

Commissioners pointed out, however, that the ruling focused on a technicality that could easily be remedied in the legislature.

The commission's recommendations to take steps to end Milwaukee's busing program are also expected to generate objections, particularly from civil-rights groups.

The school district is currently under a court order to desegregate its schools, but the order is scheduled to end in 1993.

In the meantime, the panel urges, school officials should begin building more neighborhood schools and reducing involuntary busing.

The group has also recomended:

Developing pilot programs to promote site-based management in schools;

Setting up paid internship programs for teachers in local businesses;

Requiring full-day kindergarten programs for 5-year-olds and optional, half-day school programs for 4-year-olds;

Making 72 hours of community service a graduation requirement for students;

Requiring communities to set up councils to coordinate health, social, and educational services for students;

Allowing schools to contract with teachers in private practice;

Redesigning the state's system for assessing student progress; and

Providing for a "fact finder" who, in the event of a contract impasse between a teachers' union and a school board, could fashion a new proposal from the final offers of both parties. Currently, arbitrators who step in at that point in the bargaining process are allowed only to choose either the board's or the union's final offer.

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