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In States, G.O.P. Stymied in Push To Revamp Policy

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Richard D. Simpkins began this year confident that he and his Republican colleagues in the Montana legislature would put the state's schools on a new course--a course decidedly hard to starboard.

Voters in November had tossed the House Democrats from power, and when the legislative session opened in January, the G.O.P. controlled both chambers of the legislature, as well as the governor's office.

Such a legislative monopoly surely would spark wholesale change, Mr. Simpkins thought. A four-term member of the House education committee, he expected to help write new law to abolish the state board of education. Charter schools would be created, he thought, and parents of private school students would get tuition vouchers.

But none of that came to pass.

The House G.O.P. leadership made a mistake, Mr. Simpkins says now, by including former school administrators and teachers, who favored more traditional school reform, in the party's 12-to-6 majority on the education committee.

"We screwed up," he said. "We just put too many educators on the education committee."

Mr. Simpkins' frustrations are not his alone. Seven months after the G.O.P. revolution at the polls, many states have yet to see a revolution in education policy.

Taking on the Status Quo

Expectations of big change ran high after the Republican landslide last Nov. 8 tilted the membership of many statehouses to the right.

Nationwide, the G.O.P. picked up 480 state legislative seats last year, the party's biggest gains at the state level in a generation. Democrats, by comparison, put only eight new faces in office.

Also, 14 of the 19 new governors and six of the eight state schools superintendents elected last year carried the G.O.P. banner. (See Education Week, 10/16/94.)

"Clearly, the status quo is in trouble," the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, said in a school-choice report surveying the changed political landscape.

Despite such predictions, the status quo so far has held in many states where it was thought that Republican gains would translate to policy makeovers.

In Florida, where Republicans grabbed control of the Senate and the state superintendent's office, G.O.P. measures promoting prayer in school, charter schools, and tuition vouchers advanced but ultimately failed.

Vouchers also failed in Arizona, defying proponents' hopes that the election of Lisa Graham, a voucher champion and a former Senate education-committee chairwoman, as schools chief would propel their initiatives into law.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, Gov. John G. Rowland, the state's first Republican chief executive in 24 years, "supported virtually total reform," according to Laurencesic D. Cohen, the director of the Connecticut-based Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies and a school-choice advocate. "But he got virtually nothing."

Proposals to merge the state agencies that oversee higher education and the K-12 system failed along with bills to introduce charter schools and vouchers.

About the only initiative backed by Mr. Rowland to pass was expanded funding for magnet schools--"the wimpiest of reforms that everyone could get behind," Mr. Cohen said.

Limited Success

Such defeats surprised those who had braced for apocalyptic change.

"We were worried about the new political climate, but things didn't turn out as bad as we thought they would," said Sheila Simmons, a senior professional associate with the National Education Association's Center for the Preservation of Public Education.

Republicans could still record big wins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, where key education proposals were still being debated last week. And already, the G.O.P. has successfully spearheaded drives to cut state education departments and promote local control of schools in such states as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. (See related story .)

But Republican policy successes appear to be limited largely to governance changes, and even those did not succeed everywhere. In Connecticut and Montana, for example, moves to restructure the state's role in(See ducation failed.

And while Florida approved pink slips for some 300 of its 1,450 education department employees, it balked at a proposal to "sunset" its current education code and write a new one from scratch.

Pa. Vote Delayed

Also, the bumper crop of bills promoting vouchers, charter schools, and tuition tax credits has yet to pay off.

Charter-school laws have passed in five states--Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Wyoming--but charter advocates say none of these appear to be expansive plans to give schools great freedoms.

"I don't think the Republican gains have resulted in any strong laws to date," said Ted Kolderie, a senior associate director at the Minneapolis-based Center for Policy Studies.

"A lot of the people sponsoring good bills decided to just fold them up, put them in their pocket, and wait for next year," Mr. Kolderie said.

Similarly, while more than 20 states have considered voucher bills this year, no proposal has yet to make the leap into law.

Last week, one of the best chances for a new voucher law faded when Republican House leaders in Pennsylvania postponed a vote on Gov. Tom Ridge's school-choice plan, apparently because it did not have the votes to pass.

Aiming for '96

The silver lining in these defeats for choice advocates is that vouchers and charters gained legislative ground in many states. In Illinois, for example, the Senate passed a voucher proposal for the first time.

"In a sense, this is a year where we feel defeated, but not as defeated as we've felt in the past," said Brother Donald Houde, the director of administrative affairs in the office of Catholic education of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the nation's largest Roman Catholic school system.

Also, a number of governors who shelved their choice plans this year to focus on pressing budget issues will make them a high priority next year, said Allyson M. Tucker, the policy director of the National Policy Forum in Washington and a school-choice advocate.

"We thought that '95 would be the year," she said. "But now it seems that '95 will be the preparation year for '96."

With a year's experience under their belts, Republicans should have better success with many of their initiatives, according to Mark Weston, the state-services coordinator for the Education Commission of the States.

"It was a little naive if people were expecting a whole lot of change to occur immediately," he said. "It takes different coalitions to govern than it does to get elected, and it takes time to build those."

Some Republicans also believe that they will have more success next year because their ideas now tend to dominate the political debate.

"Our ideas are not on the far right anymore," said Christopher Dudley, a policy analyst for Frank Brogan, who was elected last year as Florida's first Republican schools superintendent. "They're mainstream."

Roadblocks Remain

But other state observers say that public support for initiatives like school choice is still scarce.

New Republican governors may continue to push vouchers, Mr. Weston said, but they may do so only to retain the support of more conservative members of the party.

And like Mr. Simpkins in Montana, Republicans in states such as Ohio and Washington may find that their comrades in arms are the toughest obstacles to change. G.O.P. newcomers embraced broad change in states such as those, but veteran leaders--particularly education-committee chairmen--shied away.

"You have a lot of fire breathers in office now," Ms. Tucker said, "but they're not in a position to do anything."

In Ohio, for example, Senate G.O.P leaders defied the wishes of Gov. George V. Voinovich and the new Republican-majority House and did not include a pilot voucher program in their budget proposal.

"Ohio is a little more deliberative than most states," said Carla Edlefson, a former education adviser to Mr. Voinovich. "States after a big legislative turnover often zip through a lot of legislation right at first. We seem to be slower and more moderate in our approach."

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