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Compromise Bill Seen Changing Way Schools Operate in Mass.

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After a two-and-a-half-year drive by educators, politicians, and the business community to produce a comprehensive education-reform bill, the Massachusetts legislature last week gave final approval to an initiative that backers say will radically alter the state's public schools.

The legislation and the new money that is supposed to flow from it are expected to end the severe fiscal troubles experienced by Bay State schools in recent years, enabling them to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes, and buy needed materials.

The measure also sets statewide goals and standards and holds administrators and teachers more accountable. In addition, it provides for a substantial expansion of the state's existing public-school-choice program.

Although the final bill is less far-reaching than initial proposals, supporters said the intensive efforts needed to get it through the legislature were worthwhile.

"The final bill that was passed was the best compromise that we could have put together,'' said Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci.

"It may not be as much as we had hoped for, but for the first time it will change the way we operate schools in Massachusetts,'' he added.

A number of critics, however, questioned whether the bill would bring about meaningful improvements.

"We have a bill here that does not reform anything but promises a lot of state money, which we will probably not be able to meet in the next few years,'' said Rep. Peter V. Forman, the leader of the Republican minority in the House.

Limited Choice

Up until a couple of weeks ago, it looked as though the school year would come to a close once again without the enactment of legislation, leaving local school officials to puzzle over their budgets for the fall.

The House and the Senate had each passed bills, which embodied many similarities but also contained conflicting provisions.

The major stumbling block was school choice. President of the Senate William M. Bulger insisted that the existing voluntary choice program be made mandatory for school districts statewide. But the House leadership wanted to place a moratorium on the two-year-old program.

The deal finally worked out expands choice but does not mandate it. As many as 17,000 students will be able to attend schools in participating districts outside their hometowns at state expense.

Also at public expense, the state will permit 25 charter schools to be opened and operated by parents, teachers, or other groups.

Sen. Arthur E. Chase, who had argued for a moratorium on choice, said the latest plan is also a mistake.

"We don't have any studies to show that school choice has done any good for the schools at this point,'' he said, "yet we're going to continue to expand it.''

A leaked memorandum written by an aide to Gov. William F. Weld also threatened for a time to sink the deal.

The memo from Steven F. Wilson, until recently the head of a conservative state-level think tank, asserted that the bill contained little genuine reform, but suggested the Republican Governor sign it anyway for political gain.

Mr. Weld is expected to sign the legislation, although observers indicate that he will probably seek changes later on.

Personnel Policies Changed

Supporters of the legislation said one of their major disappointments was a lack of emphasis on early-childhood education. The legislation calls for studying a new program for 3- and 4-year-olds, rather than implementing one as earlier plans had proposed.

Another major component of the legislation that gave lawmakers trouble was personnel issues.

The Governor and some segments of the business community wanted to make it easier to fire incompetent teachers.

The bill eliminates tenure for teachers. Instead, however, it sets up a new "just cause'' standard for firing.

Rather than appealing dismissals to local school boards, which have been cut out of the hiring and firing process, teachers will be able to seek a hearing before an arbitrator.

Also, for the first time, the process will have to spell out what constitutes dismissible offenses.

"Removal of tenure is not the reform that they perceive it to be,'' said Paul H. Gorden, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

"The dismissal process itself will be simpler,'' Mr. Gorden noted. "However, building the case for dismissal will not be any easier than it was before, and perhaps a little more difficult.''

Seniority will also play a lesser role in the "bumping'' process that occurs during layoffs. Only teachers who are up to date in their subject-matter certification, which will be toughened, will be able to take over the job of a junior teacher.

"However apocryphal, the story about the 20-year gym teacher bumping the smart young math teacher can't happen anymore, unless the gym teacher is keeping up with math,'' said John Rennie, the chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Early-retirement incentives have also been built into the legislation to free slots for younger teachers who have been closed out of jobs since the start of the recession.

While the bill prohibits principals from belonging to a union, it also gives them greatly enhanced powers.

Principals will govern their schools with the help of advisory councils made up of teachers, parents, students in the case of secondary schools, and other members of the community.

Principals also will be held accountable for their schools' performance.

"What I like as much as anything is the focus this places on the individual school,'' said William S. Edgerly, the founder of a group called C.E.O.'s for Fundamental Change in Education. The focus "is not on the upper reaches of bureaucracy.''

If schools do not perform, however, the state will have the power to take them over.

State Encroachment Seen

Curricula and instruction will also be in for an overhaul. The legislation calls for a statewide core of learning, expected student outcomes, curriculum frameworks, and a strong assessment program.

"We're not going to be dictating to local districts, but we are going to say, here are the expected outcomes; how you do that is left up to you,'' Mr. Antonucci said.

But Representative Forman said he is bothered by what he views as state education department encroachment. "I see in this bill an open invitation for the state board of education to begin running our schools,'' he warned.

Mr. Forman also opposes the state's new power to set local expenditures for the schools.

The legislation establishes foundation budgets that will average about $5,500 per pupil by 2000.

Communities that do not contribute their fair share of revenue to the schools will be penalized.

Some wonder, however, if the state has the money to pay for the foundation budgets as well as the other improvements the legislation lays out.

Governor Weld promised he would find the money--$175 million for fiscal 1994, increasing to $1.3 billion by 2000--if lawmakers passed a reform bill.

Despite the criticisms, Mr. Rennie, whose business coalition has been a major force behind the reform effort, said he is amazed at how well it turned out.

"From our perspective, I would say it's a home run. It's just about done everything we had hoped,'' he said.

"That of course presumes the ideas were right,'' he added. "If we're wrong, we're going to have mud on our faces.''

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