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Ala. House Backs Major Education-Reform Package

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After debate, delays, and amendments, the Alabama House has approved a major package of education-reform measures that, among other changes, would revamp the state's 50-year-old teacher-tenure act and offer principals the option of giving up their tenure rights in exchange for a pay increase.

After passing the bills late last month, House members last week turned to consideration of tax-reform legislation that would generate an estimated additional $529 million a year, much of it for education.

The only one of the 14 education-reform bills voted on by the full House last month to be defeated was a measure that would have amended the state constitution to require that school superintendents be appointed by local school boards rather than elected.

The appointed-superintendents bill lost on a 55-to-41 vote, short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

The reform package, which included a total of 31 separate education and tax bills, had been proposed last month by a task force appointed by Gov. Guy Hunt.

The tax proposals would provide increased funding by setting a minimum local property-tax rate and raising state personal-property and corporate-income taxes.

Of the $529 million in new revenues generated by the package, $170 million would go straight to local districts for school use, explained Tom Carruthers, a Birmingham lawyer who is chairman of the task force. In addition, he noted, two-thirds of the remaining money would be used by the state for education.

Overcoming Hurdles

Despite the package's roller-coaster ride in the House so far--which saw significant amendments to the key bill dealing with higher education--supporters of the package seem sanguine about the changes and the proposals' chances for becoming law.

"We've hit hurdles every day,'' Mr. Carruthers said, "and so far they've been overcome.''

"I don't think the package has been changed so significantly that it's not very, very worthwhile,'' Mr. Carruthers said.

The bill on superintendents ran into opposition from the state's 39 elected school administrators, said David C. Rickey, a spokesman for the task force.

Those who opposed the measure "were satisfied with the status quo, which [neither] the task force nor its members are satisfied with,'' Mr. Rickey said.

The other 13 bills passed by wide margins, 5 of them unanimously.

The Senate could prove a greater challenge, Mr. Carruthers said, in part because senators have a stronger tendency to filibuster and because they are "historically more independent.''

But Lieut. Gov. James E. Folsom Jr., who presides over the Senate, has pledged to prevent a filibuster, Mr. Rickey said.

The Senate will not consider any of the bills until the House has voted on the complete set of proposals, Mr. Rickey said.

If passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, the tax-reform package must still win a popular vote--possibly in November--because it would amend the state constitution.

'Nervous About Losing Tenure'

Under the teacher-tenure bill, the seven-member commission--which includes just two educators--that currently considers tenured teachers' appeals of adverse employment actions would be replaced by an arbitrator.

The proposed change has stirred unease among the state's teachers, said Gennette Meeks, the president of the Alabama Education Association.

Ms. Meeks said that while her group supports the reform package, including the tenure changes, the A.E.A.'s membership has been "very nervous about losing tenure.''

"We're trying to convince our members that they're just as well protected,'' under the reform measure, she said.

Under the same bill, principals who opted to give up their tenure rights would receive a $5,000 salary increase.

Principals then would then face evaluation each year under a three-year contract. After a positive evaluation, the contract would be extended one year so that its duration was always three years.

Ms. Meeks noted that, in the event of a negative evaluation, the principal could seek assistance in professional development.

"That's the positive part. Help is built in,'' she contended.

A principal could lose his or her position after a second negative evaluation.

Another bill in the package passed by the House would attempt to prevent the across-the-board budget cuts, or prorations, that have been enforced several times in the last year. It would stipulate that budgets passed by the legislature could not call for spending in excess of the previous fiscal year's revenue collections.

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