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Wilson Proposes Statewide Choice Plan in Calif.

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Hailing what he sees as California's bounce back from the brink of economic oblivion, an upbeat Gov. Pete Wilson proposed last week that the state pay for several new education programs, including a school-voucher plan.

He also proposed a pilot program of single-sex public schools as part of the state's existing magnet school program.

A revitalized economy has brightened the prospects of the nation's largest state--enough so that Mr. Wilson said the state can target new money to combat slipping student achievement while passing a tax cut to further stoke the recovery. The governor unveiled a budget for fiscal 1997 that would significantly increase K-12 education spending for the second straight year, up about $1.4 billion, or 8.5 percent, to $17.8 billion.

Among the new spending Mr. Wilson outlined in his State of the State Address last week would be $100 million to improve the reading, writing, and mathematics knowledge of elementary school students.

His budget also calls for $100 million to pay for computers and other educational technology, $65.8 million to create alternative schools for expelled students, and $10 million to improve school and community libraries.

On school choice, the Republican governor told legislators he wanted to offer California students a new option because too many schools "are failing to provide our kids the education they deserve and need."

"No child should be trapped in these failing schools because their parents can't afford an alternative," he said.

'Opportunity Scholarships'

Mr. Wilson avoided politically sticky terms like "voucher" and "choice" in describing the plan, referring to the program as "opportunity scholarships."

Starting in 1997, students in the 5 percent of the state's schools ranked as the lowest achieving could qualify for the plan, said Kristine Berman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Wilson.

Students would be given 90 percent of the state's annual per-pupil allotment--about $4,500--to transfer to the school of their choice, public or private, religious or secular, she said.

If tuition at a private school was less than the state grant, the child's family would receive only the amount of the tuition. About 265,000 of the state's 5.3 million school children could qualify.

California voters resoundingly defeated a more sweeping school-voucher initiative, which Mr. Wilson opposed, in 1993. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)

As for the education money Mr. Wilson asked lawmakers to provide, the banner effort would be providing textbooks and teacher training to improve instruction in reading, writing, and math in grades K-4. State education officials began the initiative last year after California students' scores plunged on achievement tests.

"Fuzzy math and inventive spelling should not be taught in our schools," Mr. Wilson said in a separate prepared statement. In 1994, the state's 4th graders scored last, tied with Louisiana, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading.

As in the past, public safety and juvenile crime appeared as prominent topics in Mr. Wilson's speech.

He pointed to all-male magnet schools as a way to keep boys away from gangs and a life on the street.

Under the governor's plan, the existing magnet school legislation would be amended to include single-sex schools. Any district that wanted to have such a school would have to offer one each for boys and girls. Districts could create a total of no more than 10 such schools for each sex across the state under the proposed pilot program.

Mr. Wilson's budget also proposes creating alternative schools for students expelled from public schools for violent acts or for being caught with weapons or illegal drugs.

In his speech last week, Gov. Wilson called for a "total overhaul" of the juvenile-justice system, an expansion of charter schools and even the creation of deregulated charter school districts, and streamlining of the state's education laws.

Mr. Wilson urged lawmakers to pass a 15 percent, across-the-board tax cut for individuals and businesses. It would be phased in over three years.

ARIZONA

Gov. Symington Seeks New Testing Program

Gov. Fife Symington of Arizona last week proposed norm-referenced testing for all students in grades 3-12 as a way to make schools more accountable to parents and taxpayers.

"Improvement in our schools begins with performance measurements through annual standardized testing of our students," the governor, a Republican, said in his State of the State Address. "Arizona's public school system has gone for too long without direct, measurable accountability."

The governor's budget plan, also released last week, would increase basic state aid for schools by 6 percent, with total state K-12 spending climbing to $1.65 billion. He also earmarked $30 million in school-construction aid for low-wealth school districts. The state supreme court cited the poor condition of Arizona's school buildings when it ruled the school-finance system unconstitutional in 1994.

Gov. Symington also pledged to renew his fight for tuition vouchers for private and parochial school students and threw a few barbs at teachers' unions, the chief opponent of vouchers in the state.

In speaking of school improvement, he said the best idea is more freedom. "Freedom to teach, if you are qualified, without acquiring 'certification' from the education establishment and without mortgaging your professional soul to a union," he said.

--Drew Lindsay

IOWA

Growth Funds, Technology Top Branstad's Wish List

The state would pick up $14.1 million in local school costs next year and spend $150 million over four years on school improvement and technology under proposals announced last week by Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa.

Mr. Branstad, a Republican, outlined the plans Jan. 9 to legislators in Des Moines.

The governor was applauded by Republicans and Democrats alike for proposing that the state pay for all mandatory growth in local school budgets, a move that would save school districts $14 million next year.

The state now pays for 83 percent of the amount that it requires local school budgets to increase from year to year, with the rest coming from local property taxes.

"This is a historic move that will greatly strengthen all of our schools for the future," Mr. Branstad said.

A four-year school-improvement and technology fund would help expand Iowa schools' ability to use the state's fiber-optic network, a pet project of Mr. Branstad's. The proposed fund would also pay for technology training for teachers.

"We must take steps this year to redevelop the teaching profession so that teachers are prepared to equip our children with the skills to compete in the 21st century," the governor told lawmakers.

--Robert C. Johnston

MASSACHUSETTS

Weld Pushes Vouchers,Charter School Expansion

Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts has pledged to give parents more options for educating their children, starting with a statewide school-voucher plan.

In his Jan. 9 State of the State Address, the Republican governor said that the state's wide-ranging 1993 school-reform law was making inroads. But Mr. Weld said he wants to go further by loosening regulations on public schools and giving poor families the money to send their children to nonreligious private schools.

Gov. Weld, who won a second term in 1994, is running for the U.S. Senate next fall against incumbent Democrat John Kerry. Mr. Weld is expected to introduce a voucher plan early this year that would give money to low-income students to attend the schools of their choice, except for religious schools.

The governor also said he wants the number of charter schools allowed in the state to be unlimited. Only 15 such schools can now operate under state law. His move would permit "any school to bypass the education bureaucracy and get those dollars straight into the classroom," the governor added.

In addition, Mr. Weld is proposing several get-tough measures to discourage youth violence and teen pregnancy.

He is backing legislation that would double the mandatory minimum penalties for anyone who carries a gun on school property. Students who brought weapons to school also would be expelled.

The governor also wants to end the state's practice of giving a $500 monthly cash allowance to unwed teenage mothers who qualify for welfare. He said the payments make teen pregnancy "much too attractive."

--Joanna Richardson

NEW YORK

Mandates a Prime Target As N.Y. Budget Tightens

Continuing the chief themes from his first year as New York's chief executive, Gov. George E. Pataki has proposed cutting the school bureaucracy and reducing mandates that he says bloat the state's and local schools' budgets.

Calling the state's web of school administration "too large, too burdensome, and too stifling," the governor in his Jan. 3 State of the State Address to lawmakers said he will seek to downsize the state education agency and introduce cash bonuses for school districts that hold down administrative costs.

Gov. Pataki's mandate-relief proposals include the repeal of a law requiring middle school students to take a foreign language. New York is considered a national leader in foreign-language instruction, and a similar proposal by the governor was blocked in the legislature last year.

Gov. Pataki, a Republican, also proposed introducing district "report cards," to "inform parents about the administrative costs and academic performance of their schools."

The governor's $10 billion education spending plan freezes operating aid to all districts and reduces spending on many specific programs. Education department analysts estimate that 335 of the state's 686 school districts would lose some state aid under the plan.

Mr. Pataki also has proposed giving taxpayers $100 million in property-tax relief by redirecting state lottery revenues that usually go to schools.

--Drew Lindsay

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