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Veto Override May Hinder Governor's School Plan

The Mississippi legislature last week overrode Governor Kirk Fordice's veto of a bill that places new restrictions on the state's referendum process--and will make it more difficult for the governor to get his education-reform plan on the ballot.

Under the new law, signature collectors cannot be paid for each signature they gather for a proposed ballot initiative, and individuals who felt were they tricked into signing a petition could have their names stricken.

Mr. Fordice is currently trying to put his education plan, People's Right to Initiate Model Education, or PRIME, on the ballot. The legislature has refused to enact the plan, which emphasizes deregulation.

Among other provisions, it would allow voters in a local school district to spend public dollars to create new schools or annex existing private schools.

The Mississippi House voted 98-23 to override Mr. Fordice's veto of the signature-gathering bill, and the Senate endorsed the override 33-14.

Democrats control both chambers; Mr. Fordice is a Republican.

In a statement issued with his veto, Mr. Fordice said the bill "would impair the people's right to initiative and free speech in ways that are probably unconstitutional, and at the least, violative of a principle that should be held sacred."

"It is highly insulting to suggest that Mississippians are in danger of being duped by outsiders into adopting laws that may not be in their best interest," he added. "I suspect the real reason for this provision is legislative distaste for the national term-limits movement and other similar reform measures that are sweeping our land."

Retreat From Sanctions

South Carolina lawmakers have retreated from provisions of a school-accountability bill that called for firing principals and superintendents in low-performing schools and districts.

Rep. Mike Jaskwhich, a Republican, planned to introduce a new version this week that would give monetary rewards to high-achieving schools and set goals for student scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test.

An outline for the revised bill was worked out late last month between legislators and school superintendents, who had called the first plan too punitive.

"It's really going to be watered down," Achim Hunt, an aide to the House education subcommittee, said of the new bill.

"I hope they take the time to go through next year. We're not there yet," said Sheila Gallagher, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, which is worried about a provision that calls for ranking schools by a standardized test.

Vouchers Advance

A panel in the Illinois legislature has endorsed a school-voucher pilot program that would use state money to help parents cover tuition at nonpublic schools in Chicago, including religious schools.

Approved 6-4 by the House executive committee, the proposed Educational Choice Act would provide vouchers of up to $2,500 for students whose parents' income was no higher than 1 1/2 times the qualifying level for free, federally funded school meals. The program would begin in the 1997-98 school year; no more than $5 million in vouchers would be given out in any one school year.

During the four years of the pilot program, the vouchers would only be available for students living within a geographic region of Chicago to be determined by a new council of advisers appointed by the governor and state lawmakers.

Sponsored by Rep. Peter Roskam, a Republican representing the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, the bill promises to "help alleviate the crisis in Illinois elementary and secondary education and assist more Illinois children to become productive members of our society."

Lawmakers were expected to take up the bill on the House floor late last week.

Union Backs Charters

The Ohio Education Association has tentatively agreed to support a charter school bill that offers protection for union members.

The state's largest teachers' union opposed the measure when it passed the House last June. But modifications in the version of the bill the Senate is expected to debate later this month have earned the union's support, said Pamela Margulies, the OEA's executive manager of advocacy programs.

The measure would allow the creation of up to 200 "community schools" in Ohio. Teachers in such schools would remain covered by collective-bargaining agreements. They also would be placed on leaves of absence from their original schools for up to five years, which would allow them to return to their former schools if a community school closed.

"We believe this is a significant education innovation," Ms. Margulies said.

Voucher Plan Fails

Voucher proponents in the Connecticut House failed in a last-ditch effort to pass a measure that would have allowed parents to use public funds to help pay tuition at the schools of their choice, including private and religious schools.

The measure would have built on the popular public-school-choice program called Project Concern, which now allows Hartford students to attend schools in neighboring districts if both districts agree. In each case, the receiving district gets a portion of the per-pupil state aid that would have gone to the sending district.

The bill would have allowed similar arrangements centered around other Connecticut cities with populations of 70,000 or more. But the measure also would have required participating districts to fund scholarships that would help parents pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

The value of the scholarships would have varied from district to district, with the number available dependent on the spaces open at the receiving schools. Any family would have been eligible, with those with lower incomes receiving priority.

Many educators saw the proposal as a way to push the voucher concept by linking it to an existing program.

"We applaud Project Concern and the success it has shown in promoting voluntary racial integration between Hartford and surrounding suburbs," Robert F. Eagan, the president of the Connecticut Education Association, said earlier this year.

"Our issue is not with Project Concern," he said, "but with taxpayer money being taken away from public schools to pay for religious and private school tuition, extracurricular activities, and transportation."

A joint committee on education failed to approve the measure by March 22, an endorsement needed for a bill to be considered in this legislative session. Supporters then had one week to garner signatures of a majority of House members to force a vote, but they fell 12 signatures shy of the 76 needed.

Retaining Reforms

Kentucky lawmakers capped off their biennial legislative session by approving a budget that keeps the state's 1990 school-reform law intact.

Legislators in the House caused some alarm when their budget bill proposed earmarking most of the state's new school funding for 2.6 percent raises for teachers. To pay for the raises, the House plan slashed some funding for teacher bonuses and statewide testing--two central features of the reform law.

Senate leaders did not go in the same direction, however, and their view prevailed in a conference committee. Under the compromise bill, school districts will be allowed to decide how to spend the new school funding. Teacher bonuses and testing will not suffer cuts.

In another compromise, local school councils will be allowed to decide the extent of multiage grouping in the state's ungraded-primary program.

Critics have argued that removing a state mandate for multiage grouping could spell the demise of the ungraded-primary effort.

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