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Mass. Conferees Said Nearing Accord on School Choice, Reform Bill

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After more than two years of trying to pass education-reform legislation, Massachusetts lawmakers last week appeared to be on the brink of resolving key issues that have long separated the leadership of the two legislative chambers.

Observers said that House and Senate conference committee members were close to reaching an agreement on the volatile school-choice issue, which has been a major factor in the legislature's inability to adopt a reform bill.

Committee members and their aides were keeping mum, however, about the specifics of an accord that sources predicted would be unveiled late last week.

"The goal is to try to finish the conference committee report before the House takes up the budget for debate,'' said John R. Schneider, the research director for the joint committee on education.

The House version of the budget was scheduled to be released late last week, with debate expected to begin this week.

Although school choice is not the only point at issue between the House and Senate bills, it has been the most troublesome because President of the Senate William M. Bulger and Speaker of the House Charles F. Flaherty, both Democrats, reportedly hold diametrically opposed positions.

The bill passed by the Senate calls for expanding the state's current voluntary choice program to one in which all districts would have to accept students who wished to transfer in. The House bill, by contrast, would place a moratorium on public school choice. (See Education Week, April 14, 1993.)

Gubernatorial Compromise

One possible resolution to the impasse has been offered by Gov. William F. Weld.

The Republican Governor, who is a supporter of school choice, suggested a compromise in which the voluntary choice program would continue until fiscal 1995.

"The Governor is trying to broker a compromise to get through the logjam,'' said Maria Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the executive office of education.

Under Mr. Weld's proposal, student participation in the program would be capped at about 2 percent of state enrollment, or 17,000 pupils. Currently, fewer than 3,000 students participate.

The plan also would provide transportation vouchers for students who need them and would continue to allow local communities to decide how many children their schools could accommodate.

The Senate version of school choice would transfer that authority to the secretary of education.

Mr. Weld's proposal also would place limitations on another contentious choice issue, charter schools. The Senate bill calls for an unlimited number of the publicly funded schools that parents, teachers, or others could open and operate free from many state regulations, while Mr. Weld would cap the number at 25 for the first two years.

Frustration Reigns

Observers are uncertain if the Democrats, who control both chambers by overwhelming margins, will embrace the Governor's proposal in its entirety. But state educators in particular are hoping some sort of compromise is reached soon, if for no other reason than planning purposes.

Mr. Weld's budget reflects a threat he made that no new money would be made available for schools unless a reform bill passed.

Although the Democrats have both the intention and the votes to add money for education, even over a veto, school officials are still left in the position of having little or no idea how much state aid they will be getting.

As a result, districts are having to prepare as many as three budgets and blanket their workers with anticipatory pink slips.

"They are frustrated. They are angry,'' said Paul H. Gorden, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

"It has taken so long to settle the education-reform issue because of the choice issue,'' Mr. Gorden added. "Put the choice issue aside and handle it separately and let's get on with the education reform.''

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