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Ala. Reform Plan Comes Up Short in Special Session

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The Alabama legislature has closed out its second legislative session of the year without passing comprehensive education reforms ordered by a state judge.

Observers attributed lawmakers' decision to put off further action on the issue to a combination of gubernatorial-campaign politics and an unusual coalition of opponents.

Only small pieces of a $1 billion education-reform package backed by Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. were passed before legislators adjourned the special session early this month.

In a statement, Governor Folsom laid the blame for the defeat of reform squarely at the feet of a coalition made up of the Alabama Education Association, the Alabama Farmers Federation, and the conservative Eagle Forum. He called it "a shame and a great disgrace.''

No 'Fear or Respect'

Another session is planned for July, said Chris Grimshawe, the Governor's press secretary. The Governor will wait until then to call back legislators, Mr. Grimshawe noted, because that will be after the Democratic primary June 7 and run-offs at the end of that month.

Many legislators balked at the recent special session because they wanted to be campaigning.

The education-reform issue is an urgent one because school reopens in August and Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese has given the state until Sept. 30 to come up with a plan to correct the education system he found unconstitutional last year.

But, as Rep. Taylor F. Harper, a backer of the reform measure, noted, "There's not a lot of, I guess you'd say, fear or respect for that order by some on the opposition side.''

The legislature passed--and the Governor signed--three bills related to education reform as well as 10 others related to school violence.

Two of the reform bills provide that all students have access to safe, clean, and properly equipped facilities and adequate textbooks and instruction. The third bill extends the school year from 175 to 180 days.

Strategy Fails

In a bid to "divide and conquer'' House opposition to various parts of the bill, the Governor had his plan introduced in the House as more than 40 different bills. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

But the strategy failed as the A.E.A., the Farmers Federation, and the Eagle Forum each held enough sway with legislators to prevent debate on the centerpiece bill that provided for the reform of curricula and standards.

Mr. Harper, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, noted that opponents of the legislation blocked debate for a time by introducing an 800-page resolution that contained the entire state tax code. Reading it into the legislative record took 14 hours.

Gubernatorial politics was a key factor in the opposition coalition because the teachers' union's head, Paul Hubbert, is running against Mr. Folsom for the Democratic nomination.

The farm group, which has supported Mr. Hubbert's campaign this year, has traditionally been opposed to raising property taxes, which would probably be needed to pay for education reform.

The Eagle Forum, meanwhile, has objected to what it sees as "outcomes-based education'' in the reform measure.

Officials of Eagle Forum's state chapter emphasized last week that their objections to Mr. Folsom's plan were philosophical, not political. They favor a less costly plan that relies more on nationally normed standardized tests to measure student achievement.

The plan's defeat "was reflecting the sentiment of the people of Alabama,'' said Eunice Smith, the president of Eagle Forum of Alabama.

"It is a strange series of bedfellows that has come together this year on education reform,'' Mr. Grimshawe observed.

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