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Massachusetts Officials Vie To Present Reform Plans

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Massachusetts educators and politicians are busy these days laying the foundation for--and maneuvering for political advantage over--what could prove to be a major effort next year to overhaul the state's fiscally strained school system.

The most dramatic stop so far has come from the first-year Republican Governor, William F. Weld, who late last month unveiled a package of radical reforms that included a proposal to allow one school district to bid for the services of another's administrators.

The leaders of the Democrat-majority legislature, meanwhile, are working on a four-part school-improvement plan that they hope to release by the end of the year.

In addition, a panel appointed by the state education department last week issued a report that blasted conditions in some of the state's poorest school districts and called for a through reworking of the system of education finance. And the state supreme court has speeded up proceedings in a finance-equity case that could give the judiciary a central role in guiding state education reform. (See story, this page.)

The hectic pace of activity has seemed at times to resemble a group of firemen racing to catch a baby tossed from a burning building--with it still to be seen whether one would be the hero, or all would collide.

The political stakes also are high, in a state where Mr. Weld has been struggling to revive a weak Republican Party with a series of innovative budgetary and programmatic proposals.

It is, in the words of a spokesman for the powerful Massachusetts Teachers Association, a "headlong rush to grab political credit for education reform."

The state's leaders "are all working off the same polling data, and all of a sudden have realized that education is a winning issue with the electorate," observed the union spokesman, Stephen K. Wollmer.

"There is a big spectrum of possible outcomes here," Mr. Wollmer said, "ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime."

'Bold Steps' Urged

Mr. Weld outlined his educationreform plan as he and U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander toured the state to promote President Bush's America 2000 program.

Declaring that "we need change" and "the changes cannot be small or incremental, because too much is at risk," the Governor called on the state to "take bold stops to change the destiny of our school children."

One of those stops would enable two or more districts to share the expertise and costs of one superintendent or administrative team.

Under such a system, administrators would have a financial incentive to perform well and be sought after, Mr. Weld said.

"This public-bid system brings accountability, competition, and incentives for performance into our schools, while reducing costs for all concerned," the Governor asserted.

Mr. Weld pointed to two towns west of Boston that, he said, are home to three school districts with three superintendents who are paid combined salaries of a quarter of a million dollars. "Surely there are better ways to spend that kind of money in classrooms," he argued.

The Governor also proposed establishing school-governance councils, chaired by the school principal and consisting of locally elected parents and teachers, with the authority to set policies, establish curricula, and develop strategies for meeting educational goals.

Mr. Weld also said the focus of the existing school committees--as district school boards are known in Massachusetts--should be "broadened" to include establishing systemwide goals, hiring and reviewing the performance of superintendents, and approving contracts.

Paul H. Gorden, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the committee functions proposed by the Governor were nothing new. "That is what school committees do now," Mr. Gorden said.

But Michael J. Sentance, the Governor's undersecretary of education for policy and planning, predicted that school committees will object to the proposal when they see it in a more developed form. The final plan will have provisions to get school committees out of the business of managing school operations and hiring and firing administrators other than the superintendent, the aide said.

In addition, Governor Weld proposed giving teachers more responsibility for spending money in the classroom and for recruiting and hiring their colleagues. The professional development of teachers, he said, should be part of a renewable teacher-certification process.

The Governor's plan also calls for the state to increase parental involvement in schools; reshape vocational-education programs in schools with input from business; test students in grades 4, 8, and 12; and expand the use of distance learning and fiber-optics for interactive learning.

Mr. Weld also proposed changing the school-funding system to ensure that state aid given to municipalities for education is, in fact, spent in schools.

The Governor also announced that he was establishing a Massachusetts 2000 Commission, to advocate for change in public schools, and a Massachusetts 2000 steering committee, chaired by Roseanne K. Bacon, president of the M.T.A. to serve as an independent resource to parents and educators.

'Fraudulent and Misleading'

The Governor's plan was promptly assailed as empty rhetoric by the Democratic leaders of the legislature's Joint Committee on Education, the Arts, and Humanities, which in September established a four-committee task force to develop by the end of this year a plan to overhaul public schools. Senator Thomas F. Birmingham, who chairs his chamber's side of the joint committee, told reporters that the Governor's plan "does not speak to any issues that are really relevant to Massachusetts right now."

The joint committee's other chairman, Representative Mark Roosevelt, said Mr. Weld's plan was not in accord with the Governor's own record, noting that Mr. Weld had vetoed half of the state budget for student testing this year, only to be overridden by the legislature.

"Frankly, the entire plan is fraudulent, it's misleading, and it adds to the confusion up here," said Tripp Jones, Mr. Roosevelt's staff director.

The Governor "discussed some ideas and concepts which, frankly, had been discussed for several years," Mr. Jones said. "There is a general agreement that what he did ... was a public-relations stunt."

Although she agreed to serve on the Massachusetts 2000 committee, Ms. Bacon of the M.T.A. quickly issued a press release to make clear that she disagreed with Mr. Weld on several of his proposals dealing with teachers.

Acting Commissioner of Education Rhoda Schneider praised Mr. Weld for caring "enough to put forward a plan," which she accused the previous governor, Michael S. Dukakis, of failing to do. Her spokesman stressed, however, that Ms. Schneider had not yet decided whether she would back the Governor's proposals.

'The First Problem': Funding

The harshest criticisms of the Governor were directed toward his failure to address the issue of school finance in a state where disparities among districts are among the widest in the country.

"Anyone who proposes educational reform without talking about finances is not looking at the major causes of the problems," observed Peter R. Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

"The first problem you have to deal with," Mr. Finn said, "is per-pupil expenditures in the state."

Representatives from education organizations also criticized the Governor for not proposing new sources of revenue for education at a time when several districts are in deep financial trouble. Although Mr. Weld has suggested that the private sector provide new school funds, state businesses have been too badly battered by the recession to be counted on, the education spokesmen said.

Mr. Wollmer of the M.T.A. said state support for education has dropped by 25 percent, or $400 million per year, over the past two years. "We can't get to Massachusetts 2000 until we get back to 1989," he said.

Marie Johnson, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, criticized the Governor for failing to propose more state funding for education.

Ms. Johnson also faulted Mr. Weld's plan for trying to earmark local aid to be spent on schools. "Improvement in education cannot be gained at the expense of other local services," she argued.

But Mr. Sentance, the gubernatorial aide, dismissed much of the criticism of Mr. Weld's plan as premature. Many details of the plan still need to be worked out, he said, adding that the proposals announced so far are based on successful programs in other states and represent "the cutting edge of school reform."

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