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In Reversal, Idaho Lawmakers Spare Pilot Reform Project

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In response to intense public criticism, the Idaho legislature's joint finance-appropriations committee has reversed its initial decision to eliminate a $2 million education-reform pilot project.

Rather than appropriating additional funds for the project, however, the committee voted this month to use $1.66 million from general school support to fund it. The panel called on Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry L. Evans to raise the remaining $340,000 from private sources.

"I was pleased when they came back later and decided that we would continue to have the money it takes to continue the statewide reform activity,'' Mr. Evans said last week.

"On the other hand, I wasn't overjoyed with the thought that I would have to raise some of the money from the private sector,'' he added. "But at least the issue is still alive and we will continue to make progress.''

The reform initiative, "Schools for 2000 and Beyond,'' calls for developing a performance-based curriculum and assessment system, strengthening early-childhood programs, improving parental involvement, implementing site-based management, and increasing the use of technology.

The state education department last year established demonstration projects at 14 sites, each of which focused on a specific reform issue. This fall, department officials hope to open six model schools that would incorporate all of the components in a systematic manner.

The legislative panel's initial decision to drop funding for the reform project was opposed by Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.

"The legislature embarrassed itself by committing to a public school program that was so low it did not include any money to continue fledgling reform efforts here,'' said Scott Peyron, a spokesman for Mr. Andrus.

"The Governor's belief is that it's thoroughly inadequate, as is the general budget appropriation for public schools,'' Mr. Peyron added.

'It Hurts Everybody'

Last week, the House narrowly approved a $525 million appropriation for basic school support that was about $30 million less than the education department had requested.

Mr. Andrus and education leaders have decried the proposed funding level, charging that it would force local governments to raise property taxes to maintain existing services during a period of rising enrollment.

Still, the issue of reform funding has created tensions in the education coalition, with the state teachers' union charging that the reform activities are being revived at the expense of a public school budget that is already insufficient.

While the Idaho Education Association does not oppose the reform program itself, said Gayle Moore, a spokeswoman for the union, it questions whether funds should be diverted from basic school support in order to finance the effort.

The $525 million appropriation "doesn't meet the needs of the growing enrollment,'' she said. "Until there is adequate funding for the basics in all of the classrooms, [lawmakers should not] siphon that off for any specific cause, no matter what the cause,'' because "it hurts everybody.''

Responding to such criticisms, Mr. Evans said, "No matter how difficult the economic situation was or no matter how tight the budget was, we should never give up on the activities that are designed to improve education for our students.''

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