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Pennsylvania House Votes To Nullify State Board's Learner-Outcome Rules

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Pennsylvania's hotly debated school-reform initiative on outcomes-based education ran into another obstacle last week when the House voted overwhelmingly against it.

Lawmakers voted 139 to 61 to attach to a special-education bill an amendment nullifying outcomes-based regulations adopted by the state board of education last month.

The House subsequently passed the legislation on a 168-to-32 vote.

At the same time, Gov. Robert P. Casey appealed to Secretary of Education Donald M. Carroll Jr. and the state board to delay transmitting the outcomes to a regulatory-review commission until a compromise could be reached. The board agreed to postpone submitting the outcomes, which spell out standards that all students will be expected to meet in order to graduate.

The legislative action sets up a potential confrontation with the Senate, which defeated a similar prohibition against the learner outcomes earlier this month.

Special Education the 'Victim'

The House action also delayed the authorization of funding for special-education programs, as well as modification of the existing state-aid formula for special education.

"Special education, of course, is the victim here. We desperately need to get a bill passed to solve the problem,'' said Tom Gentzel, the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The P.S.B.A. filed suit against the state education department last month when special-education monies were not forthcoming.

The suit was settled this month when the department, which had questioned its authority to distribute the money, agreed to release $88 million. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1993.)

The funds, which are expected to be released soon, should carry the districts through March.

"I'm a little miffed that our funding is being held up by political infighting,'' said Rosalie A. Dibert, the president of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Ms. Dibert said educators and advocates had been assured in November by Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the chairman of the House education committee, that funding would be made available.

"I was disappointed when that didn't happen before the holidays. Then I thought it would be first on the agenda when folks got back to work. That didn't happen either,'' Ms. Dibert said. "In the meanwhile, O.B.E. reared its ugly head.''

Criticisms of Proposal

Rep. Ron Gamble, the sponsor of the amendment on learner outcomes, said he selected the special-education bill as a vehicle because it was urgently needed by districts.

"Knowing the education committee and knowing the position of the chairman of the education committee, who strongly supports O.B.E., [I realized] if we didn't attach it to a bill that was very important, the legislation would have been shelved,'' he said.

Jan Bissett, the executive director of the House education committee, said the hope is that the Senate will hold the bill until a compromise can be worked out.

Representative Gamble's amendment nullifying the outcomes regulations also prohibited the state board from promulgating "goals or outcomes which deal with values, morals, or other affective or nonacademic subjects.''

Nearly three years in the works, the reform initiative first ran afoul of a small but vocal group of critics about a year ago.

Opponents complained that outcomes-based education promoted values that were antithetical to many parents' preferences toward their children's upbringing.

Since then, other voices have joined the fray, with criticisms ranging from hidden costs to ineffective instruction.

Representative Gamble, for example, said he has seen documentation that the board's plan would lower the achievement and learning levels of students.

But members of the state board maintain that much of the opposition is predicated on misinformation.

For example, critics frequently warn of the downgrading of algebra as a result of the outcomes. But backers contend that schools will be free to devise curriculum and instruction as they see fit, as long as students are capable of performing the tasks required for graduation.

Backers of the plan also acknowledge that they could have done more to build public support.

"One of the lessons that I have learned from all of this is that those of us who work at the state level need to do a much better job of helping people in local communities come to some consensus about what they really want from their schools early in the process, rather than after the fact,'' said Robert E. Feir, the executive director of the state board.

Governor Seeks Aid Freeze

Whatever the future resolution of the outcomes controversy, Governor Casey last week virtually insured that education will stay in the spotlight when he proposed a state-aid freeze for the second consecutive year for more than half of the state's 501 school districts.

In the $14.9 billion budget he presented last week, Mr. Casey called for a $100 million increase in state aid for 228 of the state's poorer districts.

"My proposal is aimed at closing the gap between what wealthy districts can afford for their children and what poor districts can afford for theirs,'' the Governor said.

Mr. Gentzel of the school boards association expressed doubt, however, that lawmakers would accept Mr. Casey's proposal.

"The encouraging thing is the Governor has set the stage for the legislature to deal with the equity problem,'' Mr. Gentzel said. "The legislature has sort of been ignoring it.''

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