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Gov. James J. Florio of New Jersey last week signed a bill requiring seat belts in all new school buses, making the state the first in the nation to mandate the safety measure.

The law also requires higher seat backs for the vehicles to help prevent whiplash and other injuries.

Sen. C. Louis Bassano, the sponsor of the measure, estimated that it will take at least 12 years before all of the buses operating in the state are equipped with lap belts.

According to the senator, seven or eight districts in the state already require seat belts, and most school buses have the higher seat backs.

Mr. Bassano, who first introduced school-bus seat-belt legislation nearly 20 years ago, attributed the bill's success to a Republican majority in the legislature, money for a study by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and society's growing acceptance of seat belts.

Opponents of the bill argued that the devices are unnecessary in buses and could actually cause more injuries than they prevent.

Responding to complaints by educators that state-mandated achievement tests were being given too often, the Illinois legislature has approved a bill reducing the number of tests required for each grade.

Under a measure signed last month by Gov. Jim Edgar, no student will have spent more than 25 hours taking state-mandated tests by the time he or she finishes high school.

To keep districts from having to administer duplicate tests to get detailed information, the law also provides that the state will report individual test scores to districts. In the past, the state has only told districts of their average test scores.

Teachers had argued that the testing program was cutting into needed instructional time with its requirement that students be tested in seven subjects in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, and 11th grades.

Kansas school districts on average are considerably smaller than those in comparable states, a legislative audit has found.

Many of the 304 districts are too small to be efficient, the report says.

The report is seen as aiding lawmakers seeking to control spending by eliminating smaller, expensive-to-run districts.

Under a school-finance measure approved this year, the state for the first time became responsible for setting local property-tax levies and for financing district operations.

The report says annual operating costs could be reduced by $127 million if Kansas increased its average district size and statewide student-teacher ratio to that of similar states.

A small Arkansas school district has filed a finance-equity lawsuit against Gov. Bill Clinton and other top state officials.

The Lake View district contends in a suit filed last month that the state formula for providing aid to public schools is unconstitutional because it gives an unfair advantage to districts with high property values.

The 233-student district received $3,707 per student in state and local funding during the 1990-91 school year, while the state's seven wealthiest districts had $5,384 per pupil to spend.

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