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22 School-Reform Programs on S.C. Chopping Block

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The Republicans who now control the South Carolina House chose a highly symbolic target last month in their quest to pay for local property-tax relief: They killed the cornerstones of a 1984 school-reform program championed by former Gov. Richard W. Riley, now the U.S. Secretary of Education.

With a new Republican Governor and control of the House for the first time in 118 years, G.O.P. lawmakers approved a budget bill that slashes over $32 million by gutting 22 education-improvement programs, including several signature programs from the Democratic administration of Mr. Riley.

The cuts, combined with 5 percent across-the-board reductions in other state programs, are expected to help finance a $200 million property-tax-relief plan proposed by Gov. David M. Beasley, who was elected last November. The state cuts are vital to relieving the burden of local taxpayers, Mr. Beasley has argued. The average homeowner would see his local tax bill drop by $210 a year under the Governor's plan.

"We are asking people to do a better job with less money," said Rep. Henry E. Brown Jr., a Republican and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who helped engineer the bill's passage. The state budget has expanded by 356 percent in the past two decades and needs to be trimmed, he said.

On the Chopping Block

Among the high-profile education programs on the chopping block are a $5 million school-incentive-grant initiative, a $5 million dropout-prevention program, a $3 million school-innovation project, and the state's $715,000 Center for School Leadership.

All are familiar pieces of the Education Improvement Act, an ambitious school-reform plan that Mr. Riley signed into law in 1984.

Many education observers credit these and other E.I.A. programs with improving test scores and the quality of the public schools. In the decade since the law was enacted, the state's Scholastic Assessment Test scores have jumped 35 points, and achievement-test scores have climbed steadily.

Sheila Gallagher, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, called the proposed cuts disastrous.

"People don't want to have property-tax relief at the expense of public education," she said.

"It's a step backward to grab these funds," added Rep. Douglas E. McTeer Jr., a Democrat who unsuccessfully lobbied House members to enact a 1-cent sales-tax increase to pay for the property-tax relief instead.

"We are going to see some drops in scores because of this," he predicted.

Refocusing on Basics

But state education leaders said last week that the House budget hardly signals a retreat in the state's commitment to education reform, a top concern of Mr. Riley and his successor, former Republican Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr.

Helped by an economic upturn, the state's overall education budget would actually increase by 2.7 percent under the House bill.

After cutting the $32 million from the reform law's basic operating budget to help pay for the property-tax plan, the state is tapping $30 million it gained this year from a penny sales tax. That new money, expected to expand E.I.A. programs, would now go to other education programs.

The House plan would devote most new money to teacher salaries, where lawmakers are seeking a 4.2 percent pay raise.

Superintendent of Education Barbara Stock Nielsen said last week that the House's proposed changes are an attempt to refocus attention on the basics of education rather than to prop up favored categorical programs.

"Over the years, everybody has had their hand in the pot," Ms. Nielsen said. She charged that the reform law has strayed from its original intent, which was to build schools and encourage professional development.

"We've fallen into the trap of solving every new issue that comes along by adding a new program, [so] that we've forgotten what's basic to operate a school," she said.

Several of the E.I.A. programs were scheduled to end next year, she added.

Fight Moves to Senate

But Gene Norman, who directs the School Improvement Council Assistance program, said she feels as if she has been robbed.

The bill slashes the $192,000-a-year program she administers, which provides technical assistance to councils of parents and teachers monitoring districts' school-improvement plans.

"People have been creative with little pots of money to improve their schools, and now they're taking that away from them," said Ms. Norman. She charged that lawmakers failed to evaluate the benefits of many E.I.A. programs before they decided to eliminate them.

"There was no evaluation, no investigation, and nobody bothered to see what we did," she said.

The budget bill is now moving through the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, where the E.I.A. cuts are expected to ignite considerable debate. Ms. Gallagher of the state teachers' union said educators are gearing up for the fight ahead.

"When money is stolen out from under you, you're ready to do battle," she said.

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