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Choice Measures May Derail Massachusetts Reform Effort

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After more than two years of work by lawmakers, educators, and business leaders, the prospects for an education-reform program for Massachusetts were hanging last week on the slim chance of resolving a confrontation over the issue of expanded school choice.

Both the House and Senate have passed comprehensive reform bills. But the Senate measure would extend and modify the state's current optional choice program statewide, while the House would not.

Leaders of the two chambers have such deep philosophical and political differences over choice and the related issue of charter schools that observers question whether a compromise can be reached, although they continue to hold out hope.

"If the principals, like the Speaker [of the House] or the Senate president, tell their conferees not to budge an inch on choice or charter schools, and they get to some kind of brinksmanship, the whole bill could die in conference,'' said John Rennie, the president of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

In an extraordinary string of parliamentary maneuvers orchestrated by President of the Senate William M. Bulger, the Senate late last month passed its version of education reform.

On the whole, the Senate bill is similar to the one passed by the House in January. Both raise student standards, beef up accountability, encourage participatory decisionmaking, and enhance early-childhood education, parental outreach, and professional development.

Both bills also set a per-pupil foundation budget, although the formulas for doing so differ. They also diverge somewhat on labor relations.

Divided by Choice

But the Senate bill is substantially different from the House version on choice and charter schools. While the House would place a moratorium on growth of the current choice program, under which districts have the option of accepting transferring students from other districts, the Senate would require all districts to participate.

Moreover, the House bill caps the number of independent, publicly funded charter schools that could be established at 25 statewide. But the Senate would allow any number of schools to operate.

Finally, the Senate bill would create a state board to oversee private education.

A conference committee made up of members handpicked by Mr. Bulger and Speaker of the House Charles F. Flaherty began meeting last week to reconcile the bills.

Although the bill was sponsored by Sen. Thomas Birmingham, the chairman of the ways and means committee and a former co-chairman of the legislature's joint education panel, the impetus for the choice and charter-school provisions came from Mr. Bulger, observers said.

Mr. Bulger, a Democrat, and Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, share a strong commitment to the implementation of school choice as a way of improving public education.

Mr. Bulger, who represents South Boston, has also tried repeatedly in the past to get the state to aid private schools. Critics say he has seized on the reform bill as a means of opening the way for private school aid.

"What we have here is a blatant attempt to end run long-standing opposition to public aid to private schools in this state,'' said Steven Wollmer, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Mr. Flaherty, the prime mover behind the education-reform legislation, is strongly opposed to both expanded public school choice and private school aid.

The showdown began after hours of debate on March 30, when the Senate voted 20 to 19 to defeat an amendment that would have removed the choice and charter provisions from the bill. Mr. Bulger voted to break the tie.

'Tremendous Pressure' Exerted

The vote came at a time when Sen. Arthur E. Chase, a Republican who has been an outspoken critic of the current choice program, was out of the country.

All other things being equal, Senator Chase said, his vote alone would not have changed the outcome.

"But when you think of the tremendous pressure they exerted--on one side the Governor is pressing hard, on the other side, the Senate president is a master politician--all they could muster is 20 votes,'' he said.

Opponents of the Senate measure also express concern over its unlimited charter-school provisions.

With no cap on the number of charter schools, critics warn, the Senate bill would encourage private schools to close down, reconstitute themselves as charter schools, and thus qualify for state aid.

"This would be a bonanza for [parochial] schools,'' said Mr. Rennie. "Basically, all you have to do is take down some crucifixes and teach religious education after classes.''

But Richard Barbieri, the executive director of the Independent School Association of Massachusetts, expressed doubt that many private schools would do so, because of the fear of state intervention.

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