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E.C.S. Puts Final Touches on Report To Set New Course for Calif. Schools

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Despite an election season that analysts say signaled a clear mandate for Republican politics, California officials are pushing ahead with plans to introduce a bipartisan proposal to revamp the nation's largest state school system.

The Education Commission of the States is preparing the final draft of a report that will recommend a strategy intended to win the support of both Republicans and Democrats. The plan will likely be released in January, and Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, is expected to follow up by drafting a school-reform bill.

Mr. Wilson recruited the Denver-based E.C.S. to draft a school-reform plan last year. It is the first time the commission has embarked on designing a state's education policy. (See Education Week, 11/26/94.)

Maureen DiMarco, the Governor's secretary for child development and education, vowed that education reform will be "a major area" of action in Mr. Wilson's second term, which starts in January, and that the 1995 bill will be the cornerstone of his efforts.

"We want this plan to have substance and to work," she said.

Many observers are eager to see the report and are curious about whether a proposal can avoid political controversy and at the same time make substantive shifts in the direction of California's schools. Such an accomplishment might revive reform interest in states where politicians can now see only divisiveness.

"The goal that we've been working toward is a California goal, but the discussions we've had are things that you constantly hear people talking about around the country," said Frank Newman, the president of the E.C.S. "We are trying to find a way to put the pieces together."

An early draft of the E.C.S. plan suggested that California's curriculum frameworks, its charter schools, a recently overhauled certification process for teachers and administrators, and some other innovative reform models are worth reinforcing and perhaps expanding. The early draft also offered some support for the California Learning Assessment System, a performance-based testing system that Governor Wilson's veto has since halted.

Avoiding Controversy

Officials who have been involved in recent talks with the E.C.S. indicated that expansion of charter schools and other efforts to free local school districts from state regulation have become a chief theme of later drafts.

"We are certainly looking toward a system that is a good deal more flexible than the current system," Mr. Newman said.

California sources said that the plan will likely not have any revolutionary ingredients that would steer state education policy in some new direction.

"The fundamentals of a quality school system shouldn't surprise any of us," Ms. DiMarco said.

Making the reform strategy almost painfully nonpartisan seems to have been a driving force for the commission. Legislative aides noted that the effort to always stand on middle ground caused some friction earlier this fall. Early versions of the report were criticized as too vague, sending the E.C.S. team back to the drawing board.

The report was originally scheduled to be released in September. Mr. Newman and others have said they wanted to avoid making the recommendations an election issue. But others have said the report was far from ready.

"The process has gotten steadily more explicit," Mr. Newman said.

"This is now a vastly different report," said Ms. DiMarco. "We are not after a mushy report full of platitudes. We are ready to be very specific."

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