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Calif. Democrats Offer Fast-Track Plan To Rewrite School Code

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California Republicans who finally were cruising along toward their goal of streamlining the state's education code have hit a bump in the road: Top Democrats recently suggested that the discussion move to a faster track.

The debate over the future of California's education code has been marked by fits and starts since Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, proposed the idea in his State of the State speech earlier this year.

Shortly after promising to rewrite the 11-volume code, the Governor's staff suggested that the job might be more vexing than first imagined and that a wholesale rewrite might be impractical.

Republicans in the legislature have since been pushing a bill to establish a 21-member task force to recommend a leaner school code.

That proposal was moving smoothly until this month, when Democrats Dede Alpert, the chairwoman of the Assembly's education committee, and Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, came out with a plan to kill about half of the state's most cumbersome rules right away.

Republicans, who until recently had championed the issue, have given a thumbs-down to the Democratic proposal.

No More 'You May'

Republican leaders are concerned that the fast-track plan might derail their own efforts to combine education-reform planks with the eventual recommendations of the proposed task force, according to Assembly aides.

Republican critics tagged the plan redecorating, not reform.

But Ms. Eastin, who served in the Assembly before her election as schools chief last year, and Ms. Alpert have argued that anyone serious about regulatory relief should jump at the chance to make the easy deletions now.

"We can immediately eliminate a big chunk of the job with this legislation and do so quickly," said Ms. Eastin, who added that her proposal aims to "get the lead out" of the state's school-law book.

The Democratic bill would remove any "permissive" language in the school code--instantly deleting a total of more than 1,300 sections.

Observers said that the need for rules that say what schools "can" and "may" do are useless in California.

Under a constitutional amendment approved in 1972, school districts are allowed to conduct any program or activity consistent with their mission as long as it is not prohibited by law.

"It is constitutionally unnecessary to enact any statutes that merely allow or permit school districts to do something," said Ms. Eastin, who noted that despite the deregulatory theme sounded by some lawmakers, many bills are pending that would create new red tape.

The Democrats' bill would limit the code to rules that apply statewide and across all grade levels.

Language explaining legislative findings and intent also would be deleted.

The bill would allow the state superintendent to offer nonbinding advice to districts to clear up questions rather than encourage the passage of new laws.

Facing Challenges

Prospects for the Democratic bill may hinge on the ability of deregulation proponents to come together and decide on the need for both short-term and long-term strategies.

Ms. Alpert noted that while she is ready to move quickly on scaling back the code, it is only a small part of the school-improvement challenges that lawmakers must face.

Ms. Alpert is also pushing legislation that would combine categorical programs into local block grants, revise the state's bilingual-education system, review core-curriculum standards, and expand extended school-day efforts. And she is backing charter-school legislation, a new statewide testing system, and job-training programs.

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