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Strong School-Accountability Plan Dies in S.C.

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This year's boldest state school-accountability measure died abruptly as the South Carolina legislature tabled the bill and opted to assemble a commission to discuss the issue.

The plan included a provision that called for the firing of principals and superintendents whose schools failed to make progress toward specific benchmarks over three consecutive years. The move to make administrators pay if their schools fell short was ultimately undone by a highly charged debate and lawmakers' election-year tendency to steer clear of divisive issues.

But backers said the South Carolina battle simply shows that the fight for strong accountability measures cannot be won in a single round.

"We never get anything done the first time here," said a defiant Barbara Stock Nielsen, the state schools superintendent who proposed the measure. "Do I think we will have a strong accountability bill next year? Yes."

Whether a similar bill can make it through the legislature next year will depend on how seriously educators and others are committed to beefing up school standards and holding teachers' and administrators' feet to the fire, Ms. Nielsen said.

"The business community and taxpayers have to step forward very strongly," she said. "Our purpose is to keep the conversation on the needs of children."

After trying to work out a compromise earlier this month, the four-member House education committee finally chose to gut the original 15-page accountability bill in favor of a four-page proposal to form a commission to make recommendations by next February on accountability and education benchmarks.

That plan is scheduled for a subcommittee vote this week.

"Committee members didn't have their whole hearts into this, and without their hearts in it, they're not going to support it," said Rep. Michael F. Jaskwhich, a Republican, who heads the House education panel.

"The bill itself was ludicrous and not educationally sound, and I think that's what they heard," said Sheila C. Gallagher, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, which had joined other education groups in lobbying against the bill backed by Ms. Nielsen.

Rough Start

Leading education groups erupted in protest in February when Ms. Nielsen and several lawmakers unveiled the proposed Education Accountability Act. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1995.)

Besides charging that they were left out of the bill's development, groups representing teachers and school administrators blasted the proposed automatic firings.

"If children are being harmed in large numbers, then local administrators ought to redirect their careers," Ms. Nielsen responded in an interview last week.

But educators also labeled as unfair a plan to rank the state's 1,100 schools by performance on standardized tests and to withhold some state money from low-performing schools.

"It would penalize rather than help schools that were failing," said Gay Coleman, the communications director for the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. "With kids, you just can't turn out perfect boards like at a sawmill, and schools can't choose their trees."

Lawmakers tried to find common ground by bringing together a coalition of educators last month to hammer out a new version of the bill.

Time Ran Out

The compromise plan removed the firing provision and school-by-school rankings. Instead, it called for school report cards and state aid for failing schools, as well as fiscal rewards for improving and high-achieving schools that could go toward teacher bonuses.

School board and administration groups were eager to offer the plan to the subcommittee. However the SCEA, the state's largest teachers' group, continued to balk at the proposal.

Rather than go through with a scheduled April 2 hearing on the coalition's compromise, Rep. Jaskwhich pulled the plug. He explained later that there was neither enough time nor sufficient enthusiasm for lawmakers to complete work on such a big piece of legislation by June, when the legislature adjourns.

"I felt shocked and betrayed that we did not get our day in court," said Evelyn M. Berry, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association.

It was unclear late last week what would be included in the substitute bill that the education panel plans to take up this week. It was, however, likely to propose duties for the new commission, declare that school administrators and the legislature agree on the need for greater school accountability, and call for a study of the state's school-funding formula.

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