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Some Uneasy With Quick Timetable for Mich. Reform Plan

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Michigan lawmakers, who moved with breakneck speed this summer to put their state into its current school-finance crisis, are now relying on quick action to find a solution.

Gov. John Engler last week formally introduced in the legislature his far-reaching plan for a statewide system of public school choice, in the form of 25 school-reform and finance bills.

The Governor challenged lawmakers to pass the plans by month's end. But some observers said the two-week drill to digest and polish plans that took three months to write is pushing the state's new reputation for swift action too far.

"Lord forbid that we have more than a day or two to get our act together on this,'' complained Justin P. King, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. "That's the way this came about in the first place.''

In a hasty July vote, lawmakers halted $6.3 billion in property-tax funding for schools, beginning next year. Mr. Engler's proposal for closing that huge funding gap, announced in a speech earlier this month, calls for winning voter approval for an increase in the sales tax and raising other taxes. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)

Participants in the debate argued, however, that their schedule is neither frantic nor ill advised.

"Most of these issues aren't new, it's just that it is time to get the job done,'' said Sen. Michael Bouchard, the chairman of the Senate education committee. "We could talk about it, I guess, for another 20 years.''

The bills are expected to move first through the Republican-controlled Senate, but face greater scrutiny in the House, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Even there, however, an ambitious timetable has been set.

The House education, taxation, appropriations, and local-government committees have divided up jurisdiction over the bills and plan to meet three times a week for hearings. Leaders of the education panel hope to send their five bills to the floor by November, according to an aide.

Funding Plan Attacked

School associations, meanwhile, have been nearly uniform in their disapproval of the Governor's plan.

The Michigan Education Association has criticized the Governor for promoting a choice plan that would offer students grants equal to their local school district's per-pupil costs, while allowing districts not to accept outside students.

The union also argues that the Engler proposal unfairly allows wealthy districts to keep supplementing their budgets from local funds. Under the proposal, all students would receive $4,500 in foundation funding, which they could use to attend school in their own or other districts.

In districts that currently spend less than $6,500, students would be given funding equal to their local cost. Districts now spending more than $6,500 per child would not receive any additional state funds, but would be allowed to impose local property taxes to avoid budget cuts.

"Any program that calls itself revolutionary shouldn't put funding under the guillotine,'' said Julius Maddox, the president of the union.

Program cuts would be likely in many Michigan districts, argued Gerard Keidel, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, who also decried state cuts in vocational and adult education that are included in the legislation.

Mr. Engler's plan would calculate state aid for next year based on how much revenue districts are raising this year. Mr. Keidel and others argue that districts that are using their budget reserves or have made cuts will not be helped because the plan does not attempt to factor in differences in local costs.

'Seems So Chaotic'

Education groups also have criticized the Governor's confrontational tone, which they say is an effort to make it harder for them to influence the final shape of the legislation.

The M.E.A. has cried foul in particular over a state audit of its insurance arm, the Michigan Education Special Services Association, which provides a health-insurance pool for many of the state's teachers.

Critics have contended that the benefits intermediary adds extra costs to insurance coverage and improperly funds political activity by the M.E.A. Mr. Engler asked lawmakers to urge districts to put their insurance coverage out for competitive bidding.

Leaders of the school boards' association, on the other hand, are especially concerned about a provision that calls for turning governance over to local school councils. The provision undermines school board authority and runs counter to what the Governor was telling the M.A.S.B. up to the weekend before the bills were released, Mr. King said.

"This all just seems so chaotic,'' he added. "We are working into the night to go through all of this just to come up with a reasonable statement about our reaction.''

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