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Va. Governor's Agenda Gets Mixed Reception

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Although he has just begun to sketch the outlines of his education agenda, the new Governor of Virginia is already unsettling some local educators who are wary of his views on school choice, sex education, and prayer in schools.

Gov. George F. Allen, a Republican who was elected last fall after 12 years of Democratic rule, last week took an important step toward developing his education program for the rest of his single four-year term by appointing a 49-member Commission on Champion Schools.

In doing so, Mr. Allen called on members to "start from scratch'' as they develop recommendations for improving the state's education system.

Characterizing education reform under his predecessor, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, as "adrift,'' Governor Allen challenged the members of the panel to be "bold and creative.''

"I want you to look at options like charter schools and school choice, and to find ways to encourage cooperation and competition,'' the Governor told the commission, whose members include home-schooling advocates, business developers, and union leaders.

Looking at Choice

One topic that the commission is sure to look at is school choice. While the Governor has primarily advocated public school choice in his speeches, the state board of education is currently studying private school choice as well.

Local educators who oppose using public money to send students to private school are unnerved by Governor Allen's willingness to consider it as an option.

"We are already in a fiscal crisis in Virginia public schools, and school choice would rob the public schools of a billion dollars in state funding,'' said Robley Jones, the president of the Virginia Education Association.

"It would be better to put efforts into making all schools places parents would like their children to attend,'' Mr. Jones added.

But Michelle Easton, a new member of the state board and a former official in the U.S. Education Department's private school office under the Reagan and Bush administrations, said she believes opposition to state funding of private schools reflects public educators' fear of competition.

"I think there is a tremendous fear of losing the monopoly and losing students,'' Ms. Easton said. "I want to give educators confidence that they can do well under competition.''

"Once people get a taste of freedom and feel the benefits of choosing a school, they're going to want more,'' she added.

A License To Improve

But the newly appointed state superintendent of public instruction, William C. Bosher Jr., said he believes such issues represent only a small portion of what Governor Allen has planned for education in Virginia.

The Governor ran on a platform of promoting higher standards in education and eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy, Mr. Bosher pointed out.

By the end of the month, the superintendent said, the state education department will have slashed its payroll by $1.6 million and eliminated dozens of middle-management positions.

"The Governor has given us the license to instigate improvement,'' said Mr. Bosher, a local superintendent for 13 years before he took his new position in January.

"The biggest challenge [to education reform] is to make sure we do not malign the strong local programs that exist while at the same time identifying our weaknesses,'' Superintendent Bosher argued.

Over the coming year, the Commission on Champion Schoolswill focus on ways to promote academic excellence, accountability, community, and parental involvement in the state's 167 districts. The panel is expected to present its recommendations to the Governor next spring.

But while educators said they were eagerly awaiting the work of the commission, some expressed concern about the impact of the Governor's social agenda.

School Prayer, Sex Education

Mr. Allen's support for school prayer, for example, has met with a lukewarm response from local education leaders. Early in his term, Mr. Allen signed into law a controversial bill that allows student-initiated prayer in the public schools.

Mr. Jones of the V.E.A., who was an 8th-grade teacher, argued that prayer can be unsettling in a classroom setting.

"If I am teaching my English class and a voodoo child sacrifices a chicken, that would be disruptive,'' Mr. Jones said.

But Frank E. Barham, the executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, voiced support for Governor Allen's position.

"We are in favor of a student's right to pray when they feel compelled to,'' he said. 'Haven't we all prayed during exam time?''

Another issue which is likely to provoke debate among educators in the coming months is the Governor's interest in repealing an existing state requirement that all public school students receive comprehensive sex education.

Supporters of the mandate worry that the Governor will side with his conservative Christian allies who support removing information about contraceptives from the curriculum.

"I fear that he will be an activist on this issue. As they say, 'He has danced to the tune with the one that brung ya,' and the religious right has brought him to this dance,'' said Karen Raschke, a lobbyist for the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Lawmakers are currently developing legislation that would allow districts to opt out of state sex-education requirements. The proposal also would require districts to use only sex-education curricula that promote abstinence until marriage.

On a related issue, Governor Allen this year pushed hard for a tough parental-notification law on abortion. When the legislature sent him a bill allowing minors to receive abortions after notifying an adult sibling or grandparent, he rejected it, and the legislation died at the end of the session.

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