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G.O.P. Board Candidates Target Ala. Reform Plan

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With seven of eight seats on Alabama's state board of education up for grabs this November, several conservative Republicans are seeking a place at the table at a time when the board faces a series of important decisions.

The Republicans offer a sharp ideological contrast to the Democrats who now occupy all but one of the board seats. Members are elected by district.

The G.O.P. hopefuls generally oppose Gov. James E. Folsom Jr.'s education-reform plan. One is a member of the Christian Coalition, and the others have told the local press they agree to varying degrees with the conservative agenda that group espouses.

Alabama is under court order to overhaul its schools so that they provide students with an adequate and equitable education.

The board, as one of the defendants in the equity-funding lawsuit that brought about the court order, must implement reforms under a series of court-imposed deadlines.

In addition, the board next year will appoint the first new state superintendent in 20 years and review science textbooks for the first time in six years.

Since only three incumbents are running, the board will have at least five new members.

The slot for the board's ninth member and president is automatically filled by the sitting governor. Governor Folsom, a Democrat, faces a challenge next month from former Democratic Gov. Fob James, now a Republican.

Of the three state board incumbents seeking re-election, one--the Rev. Willie J. Paul of Montgomery--is running unopposed.

Among the five incumbents who are not candidates this fall, four chose not to run, including the sole Republican on the board, Bettye Fine Collins. Her seat is expected to stay Republican.

The fifth incumbent, Tazewell Shepard of Huntsville, lost in the Democratic primary to Mary Jane Caylor, a former Huntsville superintendent of schools.

Anti-O.B.E. Sentiment

At least two incumbents who are seeking re-election are facing significant opposition.

Republican Stephanie Bell, the executive director of the conservative education group SCORE 100, is challenging board member Dan Cleckler. The group has been the chief opponent of Governor Folsom's performance-based reform plan, which some critics have labeled "outcomes-based education."

SCORE has put forth its own back-to-basics plan that includes required phonics instruction, open enrollment between school districts, teacher-pay raises, and a mandate that more state funding be devoted to classroom spending.

Ms. Bell's children attend private school, as do those of four other Republican candidates, according to The Birmingham News.

Ethel H. Hall also faces a stiff battle. A board member since 1987, she is both its first African-American and the first woman to serve as its vice president.

Her opponent is Jonathan C. Putman, who supports school vouchers. He has aligned himself with Ms. Bell and reportedly told a gathering of education-school deans last week that a vote for both of them would mean a dramatic change.

The district's voting-age population is 53.6 percent white and 45.6 percent black, and some expect the vote to divide along racial lines.

At least two other Republican candidates have also been leaders of SCORE. And two of the Democratic candidates are past board members of the rival group called A-Plus, which backed Governor Folsom's reform plan.

One race, in District 8, directly pits the two camps against each other and could prove tight. In that district, Ms. Caylor faces Republican Anthony Balch.

Mr. Balch's campaign literature calls Mr. Folsom's plan "a latter-day 'War on Poverty' type boondoggle."

"The A.C.L.U. and others have damaged our schools by promoting a radical separation of church and state," the pamphlet says.

Formal polling is not done for these races, and they are difficult to call.

Political inexperience may hurt the Republicans; only two of the seven have run for elective office, and both lost, while five of the seven Democrats have won elections.

An insider also may have an edge because board seats are traditionally powerful patronage positions for hiring in the state's vast, well-paying two-year college system, said Anne Permaloff, a professor of political science at Auburn University at Montgomery.

Gubernatorial politics has apparently also played a role.

Paul R. Hubbert, who lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Mr. Folsom, heads the Alabama Education Association, a powerful teachers' union that endorsed SCORE 100's education plan. The Montgomery Advertiser reported that the union's political-action committee paid $75,000 to another PAC that in turn gave Mr. Putman $10,000 and Mr. Balch $5,000.

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