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Mass. Democrats Propose Overhaul of School Governance

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By Karen Diegmueller

Democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts have unveiled a far- reaching education-reform plan that, they say, represents the "last chance"to rescue the state's public schools from being relegated to second-rate status.

Drafted by Representative Mark Roosevelt and Senator Thomas F. Birmingham, chairmen of the legislature's joint education committee, the package seeks major changes in the assessment, governance structure, and labor practices of schools.

The proposal also recommends modifications in the state's controversial school-choice law and suggests the state finance and waive regulations for groups that want to establish privately run "charter" schools.

Key parts of the package, which was developed this fall by several legislative task forces, call for: . Turning over schools that cannot meet state standards to a state- appointed trustee, who would have the power either to close them or bring about improvements.

  • Creating an independent office to monitor the progress of schools. . Scrapping teacher tenure.
  • Constructing a four-tier career ladder of rising pay and responsibility for teachers. The third and fourth levels would be limited to 15 percent and 10 percent of teachers, respectively.
  • Adopting a school-based management system run by principals and elected local councils, with school committees barred from administrative and operational matters.
  • Modifying school choice to provide transportation and protect districts that lose students from severe financial losses. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)
  • Authorizing charter schools created by teachers, business, universities, or museums, with funding at the same per- pupil rate as the local district and with the right to seek waivers from state rules.
  • Establishing a minimum level of funding for each district, with the state making up the difference between the municipality's share and the foundation-level standard.
  • Setting high standards in core subjects and testing students at three grade levels.
  • Forgiving college loans to students who graduate in the top quarter of their class and teach four years in a public school.

Funding Uncertainty

Given the continuing weakness in Massachusetts' economy, prospects for the Democratic plan appear uncertain. Sponsors estimate the proposal would cost upward of $1 billion in state money during the next five years. In the past four years, by contrast, the state has cut education aid by a total of more than $500 million.

To provide initial funding for the plan, the authors suggest canceling a scheduled 1\-cent cut in the state's 6.25-cent sales tax, thus generating an estimated $250 million in 1992.

Beyond that, sponsors say they are open to suggestions-- an implicit recognition of the political obstacles that would face any effort to fund the plan by raising taxes.

Mr. Roosevelt said he favors a system under which a tax would kick in automatically if money were not available either from elsewhere in the budget or economic growth.

The draft proposal follows Gov. William F. Weld's release in late October of a reform plan. (See Education Week, Nov. 6, 1991 .)

"On the issues of reform, there is great common agreement here," Mr. Roosevelt said. "The issue that separates us is funding."

Mr. Weld wants to see some systemic changes in place, such as altering the role of district school committees, before committing to additional funding, said Maria Rodriguez, a spokesman for the executive office of education.

Realigning School Power

Aside from funding, she said, Mr. Weld thinks that there is enough common ground for the Republican administration and Democratic lawmakers to work together.

Education groups responded warily to the Democratic plan.

Paul H. Gorden, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, for example, said his group would reserve judgment on decentralization and the proposed new roles for superintendents, principals, and school committees.

And, while noting the validity of some provisions, Rosanne K. Bacon, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said she had a number of concerns. "The package ... has a lot more to do with realigning the power structure of the schools than it does with addressing the needs of students," she said.

The M.T.A. will withhold its opinion on the tenure issue until the precise bill language is written, Ms. Bacon noted. But the union already opposes the career ladder, she added, in large measure because the cap at the highest levels would encourage competition rather than cooperation.

Mr. Roosevelt said changes will be made in the bill. "Maybe we've erred in some places," he conceded, "but better that than standing still."

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