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Arizona Education-Reform Package Appears Dead Amid Impasse Over Budget Crisis

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A consensus package of reform measures for the Arizona public-school system appeared last week to be headed for oblivion as a divided legislature bickered over how to resolve a state budget crisis.

Several bills in the package of six interconnected reform measures already have been defeated by the House, although some remain viable in the Senate.

While the Democratic-controlled Senate continued to debate legislation introduced during the regular session, lawmakers in the Republican-majority House have refused to do so, since the 100-day time limit for the regular session expired last month.

The House instead has turned its attention to a special session on the budget called by Gov. Fife Symington.

"We are at a stalemate right now,'' said Judy Richardson, who follows legislative affairs for the state education department.

Observers said the unusual impasse does not bode well for the Republican Governor's efforts to reshape the state's school system.

Still, some in the state suggested last week that a compromise might still be worked out to save at least some of the reforms.

"Even if the package does not emerge from this session, he's likely to call a special session,'' said Representative Bev Hermon, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee.

"But we cannot adopt, as written, the Governor's plan,'' Ms. Hermon added. "We may have to roll some of each into one bill.''

A Consensus for Change

Early in the session, the Governor submitted a package of six interdependent bills--three in each chamber--that were designed to reflect a general agreement on the direction of school improvement.

The bills were the product of a bipartisan, 42-member committee appointed by Mr. Symington to help bring the state's education system into line with national trends in school reform.

The task force conducted numerous public hearings around the state in order to obtain feedback from the public and from education constituencies before submitting its report to the Governor last fall.

The bills deal with such issues as teacher training, school finance, open enrollment, decentralization, at-risk students, and educational accountability.

The package of legislation was unusual in that the bills were drafted so that passage of each measure was contingent on passage of the others.

A possible weakness in that approach became evident last month, however, as the regular legislative session lurched to a close. Several measures were rejected outright by the House, while others were pending in the Senate.

Ms. Hermon noted that many in the House, including herself, believe the budget should receive priority because the new fiscal year begins in little more than a month.

Reforms In Trouble

Because the House has refused to extend the regular session, "all [reform] bills are in trouble that hadn't gotten to the Governor before this happened,'' said Mary Kay Haviland, a lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association.

Even so, measures still awaiting action in the Senate may yet be passed, though their fate after that is uncertain.

While floor action appeared last week to have stalled, Ms. Hermon has called together an ad hoc committee of lawmakers in both chambers that has continued to try to reach an agreement.

Representative Hermon noted that there already was a consensus that some of the measures, such as the at-risk program and accountability proposal, were needed.

But, she added, "there's the usual resistance, from the entrenched educational system, to change.''

Ms. Richardson said hopes were high that some reforms could be salvaged from the legislative logjam.

If not, the measures could be relegated to summer study and perhaps be re-introduced next session, when the make-up of the legislature could be different as the result of the elections, she said.

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