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Mont. Republicans Push for More Local Control

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School-accreditation standards in Montana would become a paper tiger under one of several bills introduced by Republican legislators who say they are trying to give parents and local officials more control over schools.

Emboldened after taking over both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in 40 years, the G.O.P. lawmakers hope to pass bills that would not only weaken state authority over education, but also give local districts a stronger hand in negotiating teacher contracts.

"We're going the direction the whole country is going," said Republican Rep. Alvin A. Ellis Jr., the chairman of the House education committee. "A pyramid of bureaucracies does not serve a multitude of small and very different districts."

He has co-sponsored a hotly contested bill that would prevent state aid from being withheld from schools that did not meet state accreditation standards.

Supporters say the bill would relieve districts of requirements they call onerous and inefficient, such as mandated teacher-student ratios and numbers of administrators and librarians.

Opponents counter that the state would lose its enforcement power if it could not withhold money from errant schools.

The Montana legislature appears to be alone in considering such a policy on accreditation, Kathy Christie, the director of the information clearinghouse at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said last week. She said it was unusual for a state to have accreditation standards and no way to enforce them.

The bill has passed the Senate and was nearing a vote late last week in the House education committee.

"The real fundamental question is: Are we local-control people or aren't we?" said Sen. Daryl Toews, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

Mr. Toews said local school boards currently feel more accountable to the state than to parents. "Whoever has the money is in control," he said.

And while the state often grants waivers from its standards, Mr. Toews said, local boards "see regulations as law and spend money in ways they think are not appropriate." For instance, he said, a small school should not be forced to spend $30,000 on a school librarian if it does not want to.

'Litigants Are Lining Up'

Some education lobbyists and Democratic lawmakers are trying to kill the bill, which a recent newsletter of the Montana Education Association called "local control run amuck." The group's president, Eric Feaver, said that "litigants are lining up" over the bill, and he predicted that crowding classrooms beyond current limits, for example, would promote lawsuits.

The Montana School Boards Association, however, has not taken a position.

"I think it's ludicrous. There's absolutely no leverage for enforcing accreditation standards," Democratic Rep. Ray Peck, the House minority leader and a former principal, said of the bill.

He predicted that the bill would die in the House committee, though it could be introduced later on the House floor by special action.

Special-education advocates have attacked the bill, saying they do not want to lose a state mandate that parents be involved in assessments of their children. Such involvement is not mandatory under federal rules.

Katharin A. Kelker, the executive director of Parents Let's Unite for Kids, a statewide parent-training group, points to the recent case of a rural Montana high school conducting special-education classes in shower stalls of a locker room. "It's an extreme example, and it should not happen, but that's the value of accreditation standards," Ms. Kelker said.

Other Education Bills

The accreditation bill is not alone in raising eyebrows in this session of the legislature, which meets every two years.

"This is the most negative education legislation that I have ever seen," Mr. Peck said.

Bills to repeal the mandatory-school-attendance law and to require legislative approval for the state to participate in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act have been killed so far this session.

Mr. Ellis, however, said the legislature is trying to have a positive impact on education in Montana: "I don't believe this session is out to harm education. I think we're going to help education."

Mr. Ellis cited a bill he sponsored that would allow new logging on state land and earmark the profits for education technology--an annual windfall estimated at $5 million to $10 million.

Still, that measure seems to be an exception.

Teachers' union officials say they are in an uphill battle to stop lawmakers from repealing a 73-year-old law that guarantees that pay for tenured teachers will not be reduced.

The union also opposes a bill that would end automatic pay increases that take effect if districts and teachers cannot settle on a contract.

Mr. Feaver, the president of the union, said the association helped amend a bill that would have waived collective-bargaining rights for teachers in charter schools.

The union did not oppose the 10 charter schools in the bill, but successfully petitioned to restore the same collective-bargaining rights that teachers in regular schools have.

Governance Changes

Robert Anderson, the executive director of the state school boards' association, said he backs the Republican-sponsored salary and bargaining changes, though he supported the collective-bargaining exclusion in the initial charter-schools bill.

"The state's telling us to control costs, but the biggest part of our budgets are salaries," Mr. Anderson said.

Montana has spent about 65 percent of its annual $5 billion budget on education over each of the past two years.

Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, has requested no increases in per-pupil spending for the next two years.

Mr. Racicot also is among many state leaders around the country who are seeking to change their school-governance structures. (See Education Week, March 8, 1995.)

The Governor wants to create a single state education board and replace the state's elected schools superintendent with an appointed education secretary. A bill proposing those changes has been greatly watered down, however, and would retain the elected superintendent.

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