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Education and Tax Package Dies in Ala. Legislature

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The school-reform movement in Alabama suffered a major setback last week as a $423-million education and tax package died in the legislature on the last day of the 1992 session.

The package, which included about two dozen bills providing for educational accountability and new taxes, had been put forward by a broad coalition of education and business leaders and backed by the state's Republican Governor, Guy Hunt.

Observers attributed the demise of the bill in the Senate to a lack of time before adjournment, concerns that the tax hikes would be unpopular and that the education reforms did not go far enough, and conflicts over proposed special-interest tax breaks.

In the session's last hours, the controversial bills had to compete for time with a logjam of other legislation, including workers'-compensation reform, a massive highway bill, and the budget.

Although the reform package cleared the House on the final day of the session, it ended up languishing in the Senate.

"The clock just literally ran out,'' said Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards.

"I think there were a variety of people in the Senate that didn't like the package,'' said Tom Carruthers, the chairman of the 33-member task force that developed the reform proposal, "and any delay worked to their benefit in that sense.''

Had senators really wanted to approve the education and tax package, they "absolutely'' would have had enough time, Mr. Carruthers said.

If it had gained legislative approval, the package would still have had to be approved in a statewide referendum, where supporters acknowledged it faced an uphill battle.

'Watered Down' Reforms

Mr. Hunt last week attributed the legislature's failure to pass the measures to the weakening of proposed reforms in such areas as tenure for principals. Some of the reforms "were so watered down that it took a lot of the excitement out of it,'' he said.

"You make a bold stroke on one side, and then you take it away, and that was one of the things that disappointed and disheartened a lot of people,'' including senators, Mr. Hunt told a news conference.

Task-force members argued, however, that the defeated package had maintained intact virtually all of their original K-12 educational-accountability proposals.

Controversy also came from last-minute changes in tax measures, said David C. Rickey, a spokesman for the tax-reform task force.

A last-minute tax break for owners of rental property--dropping the property-tax rate for landlords from 20 percent to 15 percent--became a "lightning rod that created a lot of confusion, a lot of concern,'' Mr. Rickey said.

The Governor also said there seemed to be little public support for reform.

While the task force united the business and education communities, reform is "still very widely misunderstood, and especially among the general public,'' Mr. Hunt said.

Mr. Hunt predicted that as school- and government-funding problems worsen, however, citizens will look more favorably on tax reform.

'Progress Without Paying'

Educators agreed that there were problems in mobilizing public backing for reform.

"I don't feel [legislators] have felt the pressure of their constituents,'' agreed Cleveland Hammonds, the superintendent of the Birmingham schools and a task-force member. "People believe you can have progress without paying for it.''

When schools are still open and "stadium lights are on, people assume it's business as usual,'' observed Ms. Sims-deGraffenried. "It's very difficult to convey the 'silent killer' concept.''

Since the reform package would not have gone into effect for two years, it would not have helped to ease the immediate cash shortfalls that many Alabama districts are experiencing after two years of across-the-board budget cuts. Nevertheless, "it would've given hope that maybe we wouldn't have those pressures in future years,'' Mr. Rickey said.

Mr. Hunt has said he would not call a special legislative session to deal with tax and education reform again this year. He suggested last week, however, that there could be another reform effort next year.

But Ms. Sims-deGraffenried noted that this year had been a prime time for tax action, because legislators do not face re-election until 1994.

"The closer they get to a re-election year, the less likely they are to pass a tax,'' she said.

And Mr. Rickey said he did not believe the task force would try to resurrect the package soon.

"There may or may not be some future strategy,'' he said, while adding that the proposal had at least made "everyone aware of the serious problems we do have.''

Tenure Changes Sought

Mr. Rickey said some elements of the package could be brought up individually in the future.

Of the $423 million in new revenue that would have come from the package, $150 million to $160 million would have been generated for state-level spending on K-12 education, Ms. Sims-deGraffenried said.

Another $98 million would have been generated for local spending through a constitutional amendment setting a minimum property-tax rate of 20 mills. Some municipalities tax at rates of as low as 8.5 mills.

One bill in the package called for streamlining the appeals process for tenured teachers. It would have replaced the seven-member commission that currently considers those teachers' appeals of adverse employment actions with an arbitrator.

The same bill would have given principals the option of giving up their tenure rights in exchange for a $5,000 salary increase.

The provisions were designed to make it easier to remove an inferior administrator or teacher, Mr. Rickey said.

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