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Conservative School Bills Get Brief Run in Calif.

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Conservatives' vision of education reform is going places in the California legislature. But it may only go so far.

After years of frustration over Democratic control, a raft of bills making its way through the legislature would allow students in poorly performing public schools to use public money to attend private schools, would grant parents new legal guarantees to direct their children's upbringing and education, and would require parents' permission in advance for children to receive sex education.

The limit on the number of charter schools in the state would be lifted, and charter applicants would no longer have to include teachers as part of their applications. Bilingual education would be overhauled to give school districts greater flexibility.

But while the bills are moving in a flurry through the Assembly, the legislature's lower house, now controlled outright by Republicans, they are almost a sideshow. Democratic control of the Senate ensures that most of the bills will die after a short but highly visible run in the Assembly.

"It's going to be a kind of bellwether year," said Dan Edwards, the deputy assistant secretary in Gov. Pete Wilson's office of child development and education. "We'll see what kind of public pressure comes to bear on the Senate."

But the Senate, where Democrats hold a five-seat majority, is pursuing a much different education agenda and has signaled that if it takes on many of the Assembly's priorities, they will come out much more moderate than they went in. And many observers are banking on the thought that the Democrats and Republicans in the legislature will effectively cancel each other out. Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, is pushing education-reform priorities that will not need legislative approval because of the prospects for deadlock over school issues.

A Show of Strength

Over the years, as Democrats controlled the Assembly, few conservative policy ideas got very far. And even last year, while Republicans held a narrow majority, longtime Democratic Speaker Willie Brown was able to keep his post and appoint committee chairmen, leaving Republican Gov. Wilson's priorities sidetracked.

This year, however, the GOP has a four-seat majority and a Republican speaker. Committees in the chamber have firm Republican majorities, including the education panel. For chairman, the GOP leadership installed Assemblyman Steve Baldwin, a freshman lawmaker full of enthusiasm for radical reform ideas.

Since January, the panel has become the incubator of numerous conservative-flavored reforms:

  • Last month, the panel approved a bill that would fundamentally alter the way the state educates its estimated 1.3 million bilingual-education students who do not speak fluent English.

    The bill, approved by the education committee 9-2, would eliminate regulations that require instruction in a student's native language in favor of giving districts the flexibility to try various instructional methods.

  • The panel has approved a measure, similar to those introduced in other states and a bill being debated in Congress, that would give parents a stronger legal position in disputes over education and child-rearing.
  • The committee voted 8-2 on April 17 to approve a plan backed by Gov. Wilson that would let some 290,000 students in poor-performing public schools use "opportunity scholarships" to attend private schools.

    The plan calls for students attending schools in the lowest 5 percent on test scores to have the opportunity to transfer to other public schools or to private schools, which would be reimbursed as much as $3,300 per pupil.

  • Last week, the panel unanimously approved a bill that would consolidate two dozen categorical state programs into a single block grant to school districts to improve reading.

"We've taken a stab at some pretty big issues," said Bill Lucia, the chief consultant to the Assembly education committee. The bills were pushed through in hopes of underscoring a political message: that Republicans "trust local school boards and trust parents," he said.

Committee Takeover

The sheer number of Republican-backed bills is making some observers optimistic about a genuine shakeup of the education system, while it is prompting liberal groups to react.

"We're excited to have a Republican Assembly and to have the type of folks on the education committee who will help move some of the governor's bills that were stalled last year," said Mr. Edwards.

But Jean Hessberg, the state director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based liberal advocacy group, offered a different perspective.

The bills being passed out of the Assembly panel reflect "an anti-public education agenda," she said.

Both liberal and conservative observers agreed that many measures favored by Gov. Wilson and other Republicans will face more scrutiny on the floor of the Assembly before they ever reach the Senate.

Mr. Edwards said that given the newfound higher exposure, some bills are gaining bipartisan support, including some of the charter school measures.

"The opportunity scholarships have a tough road to hoe," he said. "But we are confident we've got a good bill and a good idea."

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