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Ala. Reform Plan Suffers Legislative Setback

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In the wake of a major legislative setback last month, supporters of an education measure sponsored by Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. of Alabama have set their sights on an April special legislative session for action on court-ordered reforms.

That special session, called Feb. 16 by Governor Folsom, will come during prime campaigning season for legislators, all of whom face re-election. Key Democratic primaries are in June.

That inconvenience presented an opportunity for Mr. Folsom to punish his adversaries.

The Governor's reform legislation suffered an unexpected procedural setback earlier on Feb. 16, when the agenda-setting House Rules Committee voted 12 to 5 to prevent the bill from coming to the House floor for debate.

Observers could not recall another time when the committee did not report out a bill for debate. The bill, known as "Alabama First,'' had already been approved by the Senate and by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Within about an hour of the vote, the Governor summoned reporters to watch him sign a proclamation bringing the legislature into special session April 26--one day after the regular session is expected to end.

Nonetheless, the Governor's spokesman, Chris Grimshawe, said, "We're pressing ahead with [action in the current regular session] as our goal.''

Last week marked the halfway point in the 30-day regular legislative session, and the session is now winding down, said Rep. Mary Zoghby, the House sponsor of the Governor's reform bill.

It would be this week before the issue could be taken up again, she said last week.

Regular or Special Session?

While she said she saw procedural advantages in having the reform bill "isolated'' in a special session, Ms. Zoghby said that if she thought she had the four-fifths majority needed to bring the reform bill to the floor out of order now, she would do it.

She noted that holding a special session, which could cost as much as $360,000, is not popular with the public.

But the key grassroots group pushing for education reform is looking past the regular session.

"We are gearing up for the special session,'' said Cathy W. Gassenheimer, the managing director of A-Plus, calling the defeat in the Rules Committee "disheartening.''

Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she was optimistic about action in the regular session, but said it might be better to hold a special session after the June primaries, taking pressure off legislators and allowing more debate.

A task force wrote Governor Folsom's education-reform bill in response to a court order by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eugene W. Reese, who declared the state education system inadequate and inequitable. (See Education Week, April 14, 1993.)

The $2.2 billion reform package calls for a new state office to monitor school performance, a new core curriculum, and school-based decisionmaking, among other changes. (See Education Week, Dec. 8, 1993.)

Meanwhile, Republican legislators have introduced a new education-reform bill that offers a second alternative to the Alabama First plan, along with "SCORE 100,'' a bill sponsored by conservatives.

The proposed "Alabama students first empowerment act of 1994'' mixes elements of the Alabama First and SCORE 100 bills, and includes charter schools and tax credits for parents of children attending private school.

A Political Backdrop

All the maneuvers are being made in a political context.

Mr. Folsom and Paul Hubbert, the executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, will oppose each other for the Democratic nomination for governor in June, with Mr. Folsom seeking to be elected in November to his first full term. He has been filling the unexpired term of former Gov. Guy Hunt, who was ousted last year after a conviction on ethics charges.

Neither Mr Folsom nor his aides and supporters have minced words in blaming the legislative setback on the teachers' union leader.

"The political ambitions of Paul Hubbert ... and A.E.A., who only want to build up their political empire and protect the isolated handful of incompetent teachers, are behind this,'' Mr. Folsom said after the Rules Committee defeat.

And Mr. Grimshawe, Mr. Folsom's press secretary, said last week: "We're still pretty much locked into a hostage situation in which Paul Hubbert ... is essentially holding [the bill] hostage in the Rules Committee and preventing further debate.''

Mr. Hubbert said last week that the real roadblock is Mr. Folsom's refusal to reveal in detail how he would fund the reform plan.

"They are trying to blame us, but in reality, a lot of legislators said, 'I won't vote for it until I know what people are being asked to pay in new taxes and what my district is going to receive,''' he said.

Mr. Hubbert said he would lobby for debate on the bill, despite the union's opposition to many provisions, if the Governor provides the details.

Mr. Grimshawe dismissed such criticism as "smoke and mirrors.''

"They know what funds are available to pay for it,'' he said.

Less partisan critics, such as Ms. Sims-deGraffenried--whose group is leaning toward supporting the Alabama First plan but has not announced its formal support--have also asked for more details.

A January report from the Legislative Fiscal Office indicated that the plan would not raise enough money to accomplish its goals.

Some reform advocates are asking the candidates to tone down their rhetoric.

"To deny even the opportunity to debate was significant, and ought to send a strong message to the people of Alabama that gubernatorial politics are playing havoc with reform,'' said Ms. Gassenheimer.

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