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Answering Neglect Charges, Weld Focuses on Schools

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Back in the Massachusetts capital full time after losing a hard-fought bid for the U.S. Senate, Gov. William F. Weld said that education needs to be his top priority.

Intent on answering Democrats' campaign charges that he neglected schools and let the 1993 Education Reform Act languish, Gov. Weld conceded in recent weeks that education "needs more TLC from me." He promised to be a more prominent backer of the 1993 law that provided $800 million in new education money for public schools, put forth a plan for higher standards and assessments, and moved to equalize school funding over seven years.

But Mr. Weld's new leadership on school issues has done more to stoke the fires of an education debate than offer tender loving care.

The Republican governor's proposal to lift a cap limiting the number of state charter schools and his recent endorsement of a plan to make passing the General Educational Development high-school-equivalency test a graduation requirement have drawn fire from education officials.

In remarks to 250 business, religious, and political leaders Nov. 21, Gov. Weld proclaimed it "time for the legislature to unleash charter schools' potential by abolishing the arbitrary cap limiting charter schools to just 25."

And he lauded the state school board--which is considering giving the GED to all high school seniors--for its "move in the right direction ... by requiring that all seniors take the GED before they graduate."

Board Chairman John R. Silber, the former president of Boston University, introduced the idea of a mandatory GED. The board approved his proposal in mid-November but will reconsider their vote when they meet next month.

Mr. Silber, who has acknowledged that up to 30 percent of high school seniors could fail the seven-hour, multiple-choice exam, argues that the test would be a good measuring stick. The measure would also have to win approval from state lawmakers.

At the "Challenge to Leadership" breakfast, Gov. Weld said that because "fully 45 percent of our 10th graders are functionally illiterate, and only a quarter can communicate well or think critically," the test could be a wake-up call.

"The hand-wringers and naysayers are going to protest that we're making life too tough," the governor said. "To that I would say that when 45 percent of our kids are obviously missing the boat in the current learning environment, a little anxiety about the prospect of not graduating from high school is not a bad thing."

People Listen

State education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci said he welcomes Mr. Weld's new role.

"The governor is right on target," Mr. Antonucci said. "He has always been a strong proponent of K-12 reform, and now he's moving it to the next level. When the state CEO makes education a top issue, people listen."

Mr. Antonucci said that he supports "some sort of mandatory exit test," even if the GED proposal doesn't pan out. And he supports lifting the charter school cap from 25 to 75.

But the governor's new activist course has some prominent education groups worried about the tack he will take. Critics say that after only a little more than a year of experience with charter schools and without extensive research, it's too soon to open more.

And, they say, it's unnecessary to introduce the GED to high school seniors when the state is developing a test under the 1993 law that seniors will have to pass in order to graduate.

Setup for Disaster?

Steve Wollmer of the Massachusetts Teachers Association said the governor's sole focus should be the 1993 reform law.

He said he suspects the new strategy will "set up the schools for disaster by taking attention and energy away from finalizing education reform."

The governor and Mr. Silber have assembled a school board "hostile to public education," Mr. Wollmer said. "They want to create as much chaos as possible so that ultimately they can say, 'It's so busted, we can't fix it' and then can move to privatize."

Others simply feel the governor, in his zeal to become involved in education issues, is likely to choose especially contentious ones.

Mark O'Connell, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, is concerned Mr. Weld "doesn't have a clear understanding of public education" and has education advisers who "aren't supportive of it."

He would like to see the governor think through implementation of programs on the drawing board, rather than pick new battles.

"We need to have education reform into place by 2000. New initiatives could undermine these goals," Mr. O'Connell said, adding that, for now, observers are taking some time to see what kind of education activist Mr. Weld becomes. "We'll have to see how far they go."

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