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Scaled-Back Reform Measure Advances in Washington State

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Washington State lawmakers are moving ahead with a school-reform plan proposed by a state panel late last year, after scaling the proposal back to reduce its cost and mollify key education groups.

The Senate education committee was expected to approve the voluntary school-reform legislation late last week.

Drafted by Sen. Dwight Pelz, the chairman of the education committee, the bill is a spin-off of a plan developed by the Council on Education Reform and Funding. That panel was established by Gov. Booth Gardner, who left office at the end of 1992.

Senator Pelz softened several provisions from the earlier proposal in an effort to make his bill's outcome-based reforms more palatable to education groups, according to a Senate aide.

The Washington Education Association, the state parent-teacher association, and other organizations have endorsed the plan, which, at a cost of $96 million, is significantly less expensive than the reforms sought by Governor Gardner.

In addition, the Senate bill's reforms would be optional. Local school boards would vote on which schools would participate in the program, which overhauls the current system by measuring students' mastery of basic statewide education goals.

The W.E.A. had initially withheld its endorsement of the council's plan, and then backed it reluctantly, because of concerns over a lack of adequate funding.

In the Senate bill, however, "many of the union's reservations have been resolved,'' said Teresa Moore, a spokeswoman for the teachers' union.

"This provides for a more gradual implementation since school districts can choose whether to participate,'' Ms. Moore said.

'Separate Bureaucracy' Feared

Many educators also opposed a provision in Governor Gardner's plan to take away some of the current authority of the state board of education and schools chief.

Governor Gardner had proposed that broad power for developing a performance-based assessment system be given to the Commission on Student Learning, whose nine educator and parent-representative members were appointed by Governor Gardner, the state board, and the current Governor, Mike Lowry.

That move worried the teachers' union, which warned that it would "create a separate bureaucracy'' in the commission.

"The old proposal gave broad power to that group,'' Ms. Moore noted.

The proposed structure was revamped under Senator Pelz's plan after education groups and Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith Billings voiced their opposition.

Home-schooling and private school groups have continued to object to the thrust of the new plan, but bill sponsors hope to placate them by emphasizing that the reforms would apply only to the public school system.

The bill's primary obstacle now appears to be financial, given the state's tightening fiscal outlook.

"Our budget deficit is rapidly approaching $2 billion,'' Ms. Moore said. "And Boeing is expected to announce layoffs of another 20,000 people. This will have an effect on the economy.''

If approved by the education panel, the bill would go to the Senate's tax-writing committee, which would either have to find a way to pay for the bill or to cut its cost.

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