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Tex. Conferees To Wrangle Over Governance Bills

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Texas legislators last week began working six-day weeks to produce a final bill that would overhaul the laws governing public schools in the nation's second-largest state school system.

The House recently approved its own rewrite of the state education code on a 108-to-37 vote, passing a plan that followed some of the themes of a Senate bill approved about a month ago but also staking out ground of its own.

The House bill takes aim at the same target as its Senate counterpart: It seeks more policymaking authority and management say-so for the more than 1,000 school districts across the state.

The House spent three days on floor debate and considered more than 300 amendments before passing the bill. The work of the conference committee that will try to reconcile the two versions is expected to be equally intense, but leaders are hoping it will be complete sometime this week, committee aides said.

The House and Senate conferees will be bargaining over several issues. The House bill leaves a requirement for schools to schedule 180 instructional days a year. The Senate plan calls for a 175-day teaching calendar. Both would add 10 teacher training days.

The House lawmakers nixed a voucher program for students from poor families, while the Senate bill would launch a pilot voucher program. The House bill provides latitude for alternative teacher certification, but the Senate did not address that issue.

The creation of "home rule" school districts--a campaign pledge of Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican elected last fall--is part of the House plan. The home-rule charters would be granted to districts that voted to meet certain performance guidelines in exchange for freedom from most state regulations. (See Education Week, 4/5/95.)

The House bill also includes a reduction in the length of time that students who fail a course are kept out of extracurricular activities. The Senate's modification of Texas' celebrated no-pass, no-play rule would limit the suspension for first-time offenders to three weeks rather than the current six weeks. The House also voted for the three-week suspension and agreed with the Senate that students should be allowed to rehearse or practice while they are sidelined.

Critics Fear Home Rule

Democratic Rep. Paul Sadler, the chairman of the House education committee, hailed the bill as a dramatic move by the legislature.

"The final product will move Texas a ways into the future," he said. "We are on the way to an innovative, flexible system that will improve education in Texas."

Mr. Sadler found himself dealing with much more skepticism than leaders in the Senate, where the reform bill passed with only two dissenting votes. The House plan was opposed most vigorously by minority lawmakers, who worried that the home-rule provisions would allow districts to get around some civil-rights protections.

"We are in the process of creating a segregated system again," said Rep. Hugo Berlanga, the head of the legislature's Mexican-American caucus.

Representative Sadler argued, however, that the home-rule charters are intended to promote innovation and improvement.

Conservatives Flex Muscle

The bill proved an opportunity for conservative lawmakers to show their strength despite the Democratic majority in the legislature. While arguing for reducing state mandates and local decisionmaking, House members pushed through many new requirements.

Amendments passed by the House would require a sex-education curriculum that focuses on abstinence, allow students to voluntarily pray aloud in groups, require districts to allot time for "quiet reflection," bar condom distribution at schools, and give the green light to teaching values in social-studies courses.

Other provisions in the bill include those that promise parents access to school records and state test scores, increase funding for local school-construction projects, and allow private schools to participate in state-sanctioned athletic leagues.

The House bill retains the current salary scale for teachers, although House leaders said they favor adding money to raise the minimum pay level. The Senate bill would also increase minimum pay.

Texas lawmakers have been prompted to take up the wholesale education-reform program because of a 1993 school-finance law that will abolish the current education code as of this September.

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