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Lower-Cost Reform Bill Nears Passage in Tennessee

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After turning back successive tax reform proposals offered by Gov. Ned McWherter, Tennessee legislators last week were on the verge of passing a scaled-down education-reform plan and ending the debate that has preoccupied state leaders for the past two years.

Observers predicted narrow passage for the education bill and an accompanying half-cent rise in the state sales tax that would generate $230 million in the school-reform plan's first year. Lawmakers were expected to consider the package late last week or early this week.

The sudden and unexpected financial revival of a school district that had been widely reported as being on the brink of collapse, however, has renewed public skepticism about the need for new education funding. As a result, analysts late last week were terming the vote too close to call in the House.

"Everything is very iffy," said Representative Eugene E. Davidsen, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

Support had appeared to be building for the education-and-tax bill after the end of a special session called in January by Mr. McWherter.

The session ended with no action on the Governor's proposals. But in the wake of lawmakers' refusal to back creation of the state's first income tax, which would have generated $565 million for the school plan, the lower priced option emerged.

The education plan was approved this month by a House-Senate conference committee that had been considering it since July.

The reform plan closely resembles bills approved last year by the House and Senate, but the reduced funding levels would put off full implementation of many of its more costly provisions. Class-size reductions, for example, would not be required until after the law's new finance formula is fully funded.

The bill also sought to resolve a lingering dispute over the most politically sensitive part of Governor McWherter's school-reform plan-an end to the widespread practice in the state of electing local school superintendents. Under the conference agreement, county commissions would be allowed to vote to continue the elections through 1996. By the year 2000, however, all superintendents would have to be appointed by local school boards.

An Embarrassing Recovery

But as lawmakers scurried to piece together a funding plan that would aid strapped school districts while also providing some new money for reform, growing tales of schools' desperation may have backfired.

The focus of the controversy has been Hancock County, where school officials had long warned that a shortage of cash would force them to order a Feb. 14 shutdown without state help. In response, the legislature approved a measure to provide emergency aid, while also requiting state supervision of the district's finances.

The Hancock County commission turned down the offer, however, announcing that it had found $80,000 within its own coffers to keep the schools open for the rest if the year.

The surprise ending to the drama, which had drawn national attention, left some legislators and many taxpayers with increased doubts about the claims of financial woos that have come from many of the state's poor districts in recent months.

"It has really clouded the issue," argued Mr. Davidson, who said some lawmakers were alarmed when the long-suffering district shrugged off its symptoms after being handed a last-minute cure.

"People see that this and other districts that have been able to find additional monies," he added. "Now the calls are coming in telling us to say no to increased taxes."

"The Last Option'

Acknowledging that Hancock County's speedy recuperation has made the tax package a more difficult proposition, officials last week were countering the development by pointing to signs that districts throughout the state are, in fact, in a bind.

Aides to the Governor said last week that 30 districts have exhausted their reserves this year to maintain their programs. Of the $230 million the tax package would deliver, $116 million would go simply to restore cuts that lawmakers have ordered during the past year.

The remaining $114 million would be channeled into the education bill's new funding formula aimed at equalizing school spending. A chancery court judge last year struck down the state's school-finance system and ordered lawmakers to approve a new plan by June. The state has appealed the ruling, however.

Last week, as many educators and state leaders lobbied for the reform bill, most conceded that the result was not what they had envisioned.

"Certainly we do not like an increase in the sales tax, but if that is the only means by which we can get an increase for next year, then we will support it as the last option," said Ernestine G. McWherter, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

The Governor shares many of the same sentiments, according to his press secretary. "[Mr. McWherter] really is not enthused about the method of funding, but he sees the need to restore the cuts that have been made and make some progress," Ken Renner said.

And, although they were not certain last week that the education plan would pass, many of those involved in the issue expressed relief that the education-reform debate may be nearing an end.

"The philosophical debate of should we do this or not is now over," said Brad Hurley, the executive assistant to Commissioner of Education Charles E. Smith. "Clearly, this would be a first step, and we think it is a good first step considering the circumstances."

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