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Funding Uncertain for Washington State Reform Package

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Washington State lawmakers are expected this month to put the finishing touches on a school-reform package that moves the state to a system of outcome-based education.

Several education groups that support the thrust of the bill, however, are now questioning the state's ability to pay for the new system.

With the state already facing deep cuts in K-12 education, key educators last week expressed concern that the $98 million reforms would be paid for with basic education funds.

"Additional resources must be earmarked for education reform this session, but not through the elimination of existing programs,'' said Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith A. Billings.

Similarly, the state school-boards group has praised the measure for giving local site-based councils more control of school budgets and curriculum. But Dwayne Slate, the group's assistant executive director, acknowledged last week that the question of how the changes will be paid for "causes us no end of concern.''

The chairmen of the House and Senate education panels, Rep. Randy Dorn and Sen. Dwight Pelz, have proposed paying for the plan by cutting pilot projects and special programs.

"We're reprioritizing those dollars and putting them into focused reform,'' said Representative Dorn.

He added that the school reforms are likely to be optional for schools and districts until 1998 or 2000.

Senator Pelz said he was determined to clear a bill by April 25, the end of the regular legislative session.

The reform bills, which have been endorsed by Gov. Mike Lowry, are modeled on a more sweeping set of recommendations put forward by a state panel led by Gov. Booth Gardner shortly before he left office at the end of last year.

But some observers say the debate over funding, and a related argument over a Senate budget provision that would cut state aid to districts with poor student attendance, could delay the shift to a new system.

Union Support Withdrawn

Already the funding issue has cost the plan the backing of the Washington Education Association, which withdrew its support after legislators indicated that the bill's costs could be defrayed with money used to reduce class sizes, assist small schools, or launch magnet schools, said Teresa Moore, a spokeswoman for the union.

The W.E.A. also criticized a move to divert block-grant money that is used by districts for in-service training for teachers of at-risk students.

Although Carla Nuxoll, the president of the union, predicted that the state would pass a "hollow'' reform bill, she said she favored "moving forward on research and development'' until the bill can be funded with new revenue.

The bill proposes "very workable educational restructuring,'' said Kathleen Anderson, the president of the state board of education, while adding that the "funding situation may abolish the whole thing.''

Ms. Anderson observed that the problem has been compounded by the Senate's controversial budget provision, which she said "knocks about $120 million out of basic education funding.''

Combined with the pressure of implementing reforms locally, the plan to tie some funding to attendance would create "higher expectations with less support,'' Ms. Nuxoll said.

Controversial and Expensive

While education groups express concern about the cost of the proposal, the outcome-based plan is also being criticized by some parent and home-schooling groups.

The groups brought an estimated 1,000 parents and students to the Capitol to protest the plan to ask students to meet predefined goals.

"It's very controversial, it's very experimental, and it's very expensive,'' said Cathy Mickels, the head of the Washington Alliance for Families, which organized the event.

The protest also drew some home schoolers, although they, along with private schools, would be exempt from the plan.

Stephen Dinger, the president of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools, also raised doubts about the plan's funding.

But the chief concern of the independent-schools group, which endorses the reform process, has been to include a clause that would allow private schools to enter the new system voluntarily, he explained.

Because even private schools that did not choose to participate "would be affected by comparison,'' Mr. Dinger added, the W.F.I.S. hopes to have a member appointed to one of two new slots that could be added to the Commission on Student Learning, which would be responsible for developing an assessment system to measure statewide learning goals.

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