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Attacks Threaten Standards Measure in Maine

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Opposition to an academic-standards bill in the Maine legislature has left the measure's chances of survival in question as lawmakers near the end of their session.

Though backed by Gov. Angus S. King Jr., the state chamber of commerce, and the Maine Education Association, the bill approved late last week by a joint education committee has been targeted by religious groups, home-schooling advocates, and fiscal conservatives.

In recent weeks, members of the Christian Civic League of Maine, Concerned Maine Families, and other groups have packed education committee hearings to testify against what they see as an incursion on local control.

And more than 70 state lawmakers, worried that the standards would create unfunded mandates, signed a letter to the governor opposing the bill. Many believe that the art and foreign-language goals would be too expensive for some school districts to meet.

The revised version of the bill approved last week lays out broad principles to guide the drafting of standards for the state's elementary, middle, and high school students in eight subject areas. In hopes of garnering wider support in the Statehouse, the bill abandons more specific goals for each subject area that were included in an earlier version.

Despite the changes, however, observers still predicted a close vote in the House as the lawmakers planned to wrap up their legislative session by early this week.

Meanwhile, as the standards controversy continued in Augusta, many of the nation's governors and business leaders spoke out last week in support of standards at an education summit in Palisades, N.Y. (See story, page 1.)

Caught Off Guard

Tim Humphrey, the president of the Maine Education Association, said he was surprised at the rancor generated by the standards bill, which the union has strongly backed. "This is still the best, first step that we can take," he said.

Some conservatives attacked the bill's wording as "value laden." The Augusta-based Christian Civic League argued that the use of the word "diversity" in the guiding principles could bring more discussion of homosexuality into the schools.

"It seemed to be taking a lot of local power and giving it to the state," said Michael Phillips, the group's director of operations.

The original bill set broadly defined goals for each subject area, but never spelled out what students should learn at each grade level. Hoping a pared-down version might win enough votes to pass, the joint education committee has stripped those goals and left only eight subject areas in which "each student should study and achieve proficiency."

The panel left the more specific goals to be set by the state board of education and lawmakers in a rule-making procedure that would require more public hearings.

"We're stating what kids need to know rather than just detailing what courses they need to take," said Robert B. Kautz, the director of special projects for Maine's education department and a supporter of state standards.

The bill's revisions haven't mollified everyone.

"The citizens of the state are being asked to approve legislation that is basically a blank check," said Carolyn Cosby, who chairs the parents' group Concerned Maine Families.

The state Senate, where the standards have considerably more support, was expected to vote on the measure first. The House, where its chances were less certain, was expected to take up the bill late last week or early this week.

"Without it we would continue with what we have now," Mr. Kautz said, "where there's not a clear picture of what a diploma means from one school to another."

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