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Voucher Proponents Seek Special Legislative Session in Ariz.

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Proponents of a measure that would provide poor families in Arizona with state-funded vouchers for private school tuition hope to coax enough support from lawmakers this week to encourage Gov. Fife Symington to call a special legislative session to act on the plan.

The Governor favors such vouchers, but he would prefer an unequivocal show of support on the issue from the Republican-controlled legislature before committing himself to a session devoted to the voucher plan and other education proposals, observers said.

Voucher proponents maintained last week that they were at most "one or two'' votes away from the majorities they feel they need to line up in both houses to persuade Mr. Symington to act.

A special session on education would take place concurrently with the regular session already under way. Supporters of an omnibus education-reform bill that includes the voucher plan believe a special session would allow lawmakers to focus their energies on educational issues.

Several efforts to persuade the Governor to call a special session last year to tackle the voucher issue were unsuccessful.

Mr. Symington, a Republican who is running for re-election this year, reiterated his strong support for vouchers during his recent State of the State Address, however. The Governor called on lawmakers to adopt a program creating tuition vouchers that poor families could use at secular or religious private schools.

"Our public school system should operate for the benefit of the public, not the system,'' Mr. Symington said. "Shouldn't we trust parents at least as much as bureaucrats to know what's best for their children?''

Reform Package

Rep. Lisa Graham, the Republican chairwoman of the House education committee, is sponsoring the omnibus reform bill and leading the push for a special session to consider it.

In addition to provisions permitting the establishment of charter schools and open enrollment, the measure would set aside $3 million in state funds to provide 2,000 families with vouchers worth $1,500, which could be used at any accredited private or parochial school.

Supporters argue that any attempt to pass a comprehensive school-reform measure in a special session should be tied to the voucher plan.

"The Governor is plainly saying, 'Without the voucher piece, I don't sign the bill,''' said Joan Barrett, a spokeswoman for the Better Schools for Arizona Committee, a coalition of state business interests.

"If you take the voucher piece out,'' she added, "you lose more than you gain.''

Alternative Measure

But several leading education groups, including the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Boards Association, oppose any measure that would allow public funds to be spent at private schools.

Many opponents of Ms. Graham's bill support an alternative reform measure, sponsored by Sen. Bev Hermon, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate education committee. While similar, the bill does not include the voucher provision.

Kay Lybeck, the A.E.A.'s president, said many voucher opponents believe that Governor Symington is less interested in meaningful education reform than in the national attention he likely would gain if Arizona became the first state to adopt a statewide private-school-voucher program.

"It's not about teaching, it's not about learning,'' she contended. "It's about politics.''

Representative Graham scheduled hearings on her bill last week to help build legislative momentum while awaiting a call for a special session.

Edison Project Lobbies

Senator Hermon appeared equally determined to move forward with her own bill.

That proposal is also controversial, however, because it includes provisions that would allow school districts to contract with private organizations to run public schools.

"I wanted to have a public-private partnership instead of a private-school voucher in the bill,'' Senator Hermon told local reporters.

Officials of the Edison Project, a for-profit venture of Whittle Communications Inc. that is seeking contracts to run public schools, last week made the rounds of Arizona legislative offices to drum up support for Senator Hermon's measure.

Amid all the maneuvering, observers were quick to point out that Mr. Symington's previous efforts to pass a comprehensive education-reform package were stymied by what were widely considered to be ill-conceived legislative strategies.

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