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Ore. Lawmakers Seek Accord on Amending Reform Law

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Oregon legislators late last week were still hammering out a compromise between House and Senate proposals to amend the state's comprehensive school-reform act.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate held three days of joint hearings to address public criticism of the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century, an expansive education-reform act enacted in 1991 that has received national attention.

Afterward, though, each chamber went on to enact very different pieces of legislation: The House passed a bill that substantially revises the act, while the Senate approved a measure that makes technical changes but retains most of the original measure's intent.

Many key components of the law have been called into question, including its pioneering use of certificates of mastery.

Beginning in 1997, the act requires students by age 16 to earn "certificates of initial mastery" that document their ability to read, write, solve problems, and think critically. Students would then work toward "certificates of advanced mastery," either through college-preparatory courses or technical education and on-the-job training.

Critics have complained that the standards undergirding the certificates are unclear. Meanwhile, other provisions--such as expanding early-childhood programs and extending the school year--are too costly to be feasible, critics say, pointing to budget shortfalls resulting from a property-tax-limitation law passed five years ago. (See Education Week, 3/22/95.)

The act also calls for creating ungraded primary schools, implementing performance-based assessments at grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, and giving parents and teachers a greater voice in school affairs through school-based decisionmaking councils.

Both the House version and the Senate proposal would kill plans to extend the school year, although the Senate version asks the state education department to study the academic and fiscal impact of the proposal.

The House bill, which passed 39 to 20, would eliminate the approved certificates and replace them with "certificates of accomplishment." The new certificates would be tied to traditional testing rather than performance assessments. The House version would ax a requirement that schools operate the site-based councils.

The Senate proposal, approved 19 to 11, would retain the certificate and site-council requirements.

As of late last week, it looked likely that the Senate language to retain the certificates would prevail, said Fallie Calder, an aide to Tom Hartung, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

The Senate and House continued late last week to haggle over the timelines for implementing the certificates, and divisions over foreign-language requirements remained a possible stumbling block. But those differences appeared to be more of a technical nature than differences in principle, said Roger Bassett, the education-policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The Senate had proposed requiring proficiency in a second language as a requirement to graduate from high school. The House said that all districts should offer students two years of a foreign language but that proficiency should not be required for graduation.

Butting Heads

As of late last week, it appeared that House and Senate conferees were having difficulty finding common ground.

"Both sides have just dug in their heels," Ms. Calder said. "They are just really butting heads."

Most conference committees take only a day or two to resolve differences, she said, but the panel was set to begin its fourth day of meetings by week's end.

If the committee fails to reach an agreement, Ms. Calder said, three things could happen: The legislature could name new conferees, the Speaker of the House could try to force a vote on the Senate version, or the proposals could die.

"The good will to try to finish before end of session is there," Mr. Bassett said. But if legislators do not settle their differences, the existing act will remain law.

Even if an agreement is reached, critics of the reform law have pledged to put an initiative on the 1996 ballot to repeal the entire act.

"There are those who are of the belief that the legislature must show its willingness to update the language [of the act] if we are to beat a repeal in November of '96," Mr. Bassett said.

The Governor has said he would support the Senate version but would veto the House version of the bill. Whether he would veto a compromise depends on whether it retains the certificate "in fact and in title," said Mr. Bassett, and if it retains the site-council requirement.

"There's a tremendous amount at stake," said Larry Austin, a spokesman for Norma Paulus, the state superintendent of public instruction, who supports retaining most of the act's original provisions. "But you've got some strong political differences at work here."

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