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Senate Bill Sets Stage for Showdown Over Mass. Reform Bill

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School-reform legislation being drafted in the Massachusetts Senate appeared last week to be headed for conflict with a comprehensive bill passed by the House late last month.

On the key issues of school choice and the state funding formula, observers say, the stage is being set for a showdown between the two chambers. Debate in the Senate could begin as early as Feb. 22.

President of the Senate William M. Bulger has insisted that provisions making the state's current district-option public-school-choice program mandatory be incorporated into education reform. But Speaker of the House Charles F. Flaherty has been equally opposed to such a measure.

Observers also suggest that the Senate will revise the funding formula established by the House bill, which provides varying amounts of state aid to districts.

Under the House measure, cities and towns would be required to fund schools at a specified level in order to reach a $5,600-per-pupil foundation budget by 2000.

Attempts to amend the formula in the House were unsuccessful, but members of the education community believe the Senate will provide a friendlier forum.

"It's questionable at this point whether this bill can survive the criticisms that are coming at it from the financial end,'' said Stephen K. Wollmer, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The legislative debate comes at a time when the state supreme court is deliberating a finance-equity lawsuit. Last week, the court heard oral arguments in the case, which plaintiffs had allowed to lie dormant for years in the hope that lawmakers would resolve the funding disparities produced by relying heavily on property taxes to pay for the schools.

'It's Going To Be a Tough One'

After four days of debate, the House on Jan. 29 voted 126 to 27 to pass the legislation that lawmakers and members of the education and business communities have been working on for more than two years.

Major provisions of the bill call for changes in teacher tenure and certification, governance, and performance standards.

"We're extremely pleased with what came out of the House,'' said Tripp Jones, the chief of staff for Rep. Mark Roosevelt, the co-chairman of the joint education committee.

During floor action, bill sponsors were able to fend off hundreds of amendments, including one that would have prohibited schools from discussing abortion as an alternative to pregnancy.

Mr. Jones acknowledged, however, that the Senate may seek changes that could weaken support for the bill in the House. "It's certainly a possibility that adding a choice provision could affect the House's support,'' he said.

Sen. Arthur E. Chase, a Republican who has been a vocal critic of the state's two-year-old open-enrollment program, also warned of the potential impact of the choice issue. "It's going to be a tough one because the Senate president is so set on this, and he has a tremendous amount of control,'' he said.

Mr. Chase suggested that a compromise might be reached in the form of publicly funded charter schools operating largely free of outside regulation. "Many of the things they are looking for in school choice, they can find in charter schools,'' he said.

Another concern is the absence of a dedicated source of state funding.

Although the state claims it will increase dramatically its share of school funding, local officials are skeptical in light of the tight fiscal situation.

"Our position is, we don't know if that will happen or not,'' said Peter Ajemian, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Gov. William F. Weld has proposed a budget that withholds $175 million in new education money and cuts $186 million from fiscal 1993 state aid. He has promised, however, to retrieve the money from other programs once the legislature passes education reform.

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