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Interest in school choice continued to grow at the state level last year, according to a new study published by a conservative think tank.

In its annual state-by-state survey, the Heritage Foundation estimated that 15 states have implemented some form of parental choice, ranging from open-enrollment options between school districts to tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools.

That number was down from last year, when the survey found 22 states with choice programs. But the group said the decline was primarily due to the use of more accurate definitions, rather than any actual movement away from choice.

The number of state legislatures that considered choice measures rose to 34 last year, up from 21 in 1991, the report says. Moreover, 29 governors supported some form of school choice in 1992, compared with 20 in the previous year.

While federal legislative efforts in 1993 will not emphasize school choice, the issue promises to play a prominent role in the states, the report suggests.

Gov. Bruce King of New Mexico has signed a bill that would allow the state to contract with private agencies to educate students at risk of dropping out.

The law requires the state education department to establish a program to contract with private firms to provide alternative education to students in grades 9-12 who are at risk of dropping out. Students would be considered at risk if they failed three classes in the 9th grade.

The department was also directed to establish criteria for participation by private agencies.

The state budget includes about $240,000 for the program for next year, which would be enough to serve 120 students, state officials said.

New Jersey has created a $250 million loan pool to help build and renovate public schools.

Under the program, approved by the legislature last month, school districts will be able to seek low-interest loans to pay for a portion of their building projects.

As the districts repay their debts, the money will be loaned to other schools.

The money will be divided into three funds: for major construction projects, for less costly projects, and to help bring schools into compliance with health and safety codes.

Backers also said the capital-improvement program would help stimulate the state's economy.

The Washington State legislature has passed a bill banning physical discipline in the public schools.

The measure, approved by lawmakers this month despite opposition from some Republicans, will make Washington the 23rd state to outlaw corporal punishment in its schools.

The law calls for the state board of education and superintendent of public instruction to implement the ban by Sept. 1, 1994.

Only a handful of small rural districts in the state currently allow corporal punishment.

An Arizona Senate committee has put off until next year action on a comprehensive education-reform measure that would have addressed such issues as open enrollment, decentralization, and programs for at-risk students.

Instead, the panel decided last month to appoint a legislative committee to study school finance.

The panel's action marked the second year in a row that a sweeping package of reform measures backed by Gov. Fife Symington and a statewide coalition of educators, parents, and business leaders, has failed for lack of support in the legislature.

The Senate education committee approved the school-finance study on a 7-to-2 vote late last month. Backers of the move argued that revising the state's finance system is a vital precursor to wider reforms.

A North Carolina Senate committee has approved a bill to alter the structure of education governance in the state.

The bill would expand the state board of education from 13 to 18 members and cut the terms on the board from eight years to four.

The bill would also divide the power to appoint board members between the governor, who currently has sole appointment power, and the legislature.

In addition, the legislation would give the board authority to select a state superintendent of education, who currently is elected.

The North Carolina Association of Educators opposes changing the superintendency from an elected to an appointed post.

The proposed constitutional amendment must pass the House and Senate with three-fifths majorities, after which it will go before the voters for approval.

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