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Hunt Unveils Sweeping Reform Package in Alabama

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Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama last week unveiled a comprehensive education-reform package that includes intradistrict school choice, alternative teacher certification, a core curriculum, greater school-based decisionmaking, and lengthening the school year by four days.

The proposal was announced, however, only five days after Mr. Hunt had ordered a 6.5 percent reduction in state aid to schools, which local educators said could force significant cuts in personnel and in maintenance programs.

The reform package, which the Governor has vowed will make Alabama schools "the finest in the world," was developed during months of negotiations between the Governor and legislators, business leaders, the Alabama Education Association, the state school-boards association, and the state education department.

A primary goal of the reform package is to put more control in the hands of local school systems, said Terry Abbott, Mr. Hunt's press secretary.

In a statement, Governor Hunt said he believes that the reform package "will produce results, and that it will give our communities and our state leaders more incentive to make a greater financial commitment in the future."

The measure "will pass the legislature," the Governor predicted, adding, "This bill is the result of a sincere attempt to put aside petty politics and special interest and to work for the common good [of] the schoolchildren of this state."

The bill would authorize local boards of education to establish4"schools of choice" plans, under which parents could send their children to any public school in the district.

The core-curriculum provisions would mandate four years each of English, mathematics and computer literacy, science, and social studies. The new curriculum would be phased in beginning with 9th graders in the 1992-93 academic year. A similar core curriculum would be required for 1st to 8th grades.

In addition, the measure encourages local boards to create and develop site-based decisionmaking programs and try innovative methods of instruction.

The bill also mandates that:

  • Accreditation be tied to student-performance levels;
  • Existing state and local early-childhood-education and family-involvement services be coordinated;
  • The state board of education develop programs designed to identify and help at-risk students;
  • Local systems create discipline plans for dealing with illegal drugs, alcohol, or weapons on school grounds; and
  • A year of kindergarten be required before a child can enter 1st grade.

Tax Revenues Down

The budget cuts ordered by Governor Hunt followed an existing across-the-board proration of 3.72 percent announced in January.

The $159.4-million cut, which complies with the state's balanced-budget mandate, attempts to adjust for a budget shortfall of an equal amount, Mr. Abbott said last week.

The nationwide economic slump slowed the receipt of corporate-in8come taxes and a mild winter reduced the amount of taxes paid to the state by utilities, Governor Hunt said in a statement.

"Those problems, combined with the overestimation of the revenues that would be available for schools have forced us to increase the amount of proration," Mr. Hunt said.

The proration could be eased later on if revenues improved, Mr. Abbott said, adding, "But we're not anticipating that at this point."

Mr. Abbott also noted that the state's $880-million general fund, which is not now in proration, is "very, very close" to such cuts. "[The general fund] could go in proration at any minute," he said.

But Mr. Abbott said he was optimistic that proration would not derail education reform.

"There will be more money [for education] in the next budget," he said, pointing out that the legislature was considering changes in taxes and local aid for education.

In response to the earlier proration, the House Ways and Means Committee has approved a bill that would temporarily raise the sales tax 1 cent as a way to help schools survive the previous cut. The inel10lcrease could generate $67 million in revenue, according to Gene Murphree, an analyst in the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Similarly, the House Education Committee has approved a constitutional amendment making public education an "essential function of state government"--a move that might exempt it from budgetary proration, Mr. Murphree said.

'Not Coping Very Well'

Because the 6.5 percent is an annualized figure, actual cuts that districts must make between now and the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30 will likely amount to much more than that figure, Mr. Abbott said.

Some districts will achieve the cuts by not rehiring some teachers when the school year begins in August and by cutting back on summertime maintenance of school facilities, officials said.

In the DeKalb County schools, for example, "We aren't coping very well," with proration, said Superintendent Weldon Parrish.

The 7,444-student district is ranked last in Alabama in local school aid and depends on the state for 80 percent of its budget, Mr. Parrish said.

As a result of the proration, the district will not rehire some teachers and support staff when school starts in August.

Maintenance and facility repairs will also be cut back, buses and computer equipment will not be purchased, and class sizes will rise from 25 to in some cases as many as 33 or 34 students.

"The bottom line in proration," Mr. Parrish said, "is the negative effect it has on boys and girls."

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