Tenn. Governor To Sign Long-Awaited School-Reform Bill

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Ending two years of debate and frequent frustration, Gov. Ned McWherter of Tennessee this week will sign a comprehensive education-reform bill after approving a temporary tax increase to pay for it.

The education legislation, which closely resembles a package Mr. McWherter put forth more than a year ago, will reduce the funding gap between rich and poor school districts in the state while also making a number of changes in school governance and curriculum.

One of the most controversial parts of the bill will phase out Tennessee's practice of electing some local school superintendents by the end of the decade.

"This goes all the way from the classroom to the board room," said Commissioner of Education Charles E. Smith. "It will affect everyone."

The legislation received its final clearance last week when the Senate voted 31 to 1 in favor of the bill.

But while lawmakers approved Mr. McWherter's education proposals, they refused to go along with his plans to undertake an overhaul of the tax system, including creation of the state's first income tax.

Instead, they passed a half-cent sales-tax increase, which will provide an estimated $230 million in new funding. It will expire in 1993.

The money will be used to restore $116 million in state school-aid cuts previously ordered by lawmakers. The remainder will be used to inaugurate a new school-finance formula, known as the Basic Education Program, designed to remedy disparities in school funding.

Because the temporary tax increase provides much less funding than the tax changes sought by the Governor, funding under the B.E.P. will be phased in over the next several years.

Boards' Power Curbed

Among other major changes, the education-reform law limits local school boards' power to establishing policy direction for districts and then delegating executive power to superintendents appointed by the board. The state will implement an annual report card and set performance standards that will be used to judge superintendents' performance.

In addition, the law also redefines job descriptions for principals, providing that they be hired by superintendents based on a performance contract that spells out both expectations and duties. The new law also expands school-based decisionmaking and authorizes public-school choice throughout the state.

The state will increase its evaluation system based on assessments for students in every grade. Officials said Tennessee has already begun annual assessments for students through the 8th grade. Under the law, officials will begin designing a new high-school assessment and exit examination.

In addition to revamping secondary testing, the law will abolish general-track studies for high-school students. Instead, the measure boosts counseling efforts and allows youths to pursue an overhauled vocational-education program or college-preparatory courses.

'No More Business As Usual'

State officials last week said they were pleased with the product and, in the midst of a state budget crunch, were glad to see funds that will at least launch the program.

"While much attention has been focused on the reform plan's new funding formula, Tennesseans should know that, after tonight, there is no more business as usual in our schools," Mr. McWherter said after the Senate vote. "No state in America will give its schools the amount of local control contained in this bill."

"All of the things we wanted in it, we got," added Commissioner Smith, who estimated that he had spent 80 hours over the past 15 months testifying before lawmakers. "But there's no question that this has been a very long, difficult, and controversial process."

"This touches every aspect of education, and when we started making these kinds of changes, we knew we would run into a lot of hurdles," Mr. Smith added. "I cannot recall a bill that has received more scrutiny."

Dave Goetz, the executive director of the Tennessee Business Roundtable, said the group was pleased with the results, but must quickly turn to winning grassroots acceptance for the law.

"This is a framework, and we have to encourage people to get involved at the local level," he said. "That's where change has got to happen."

Vol. 11, Issue 25, Page 12

Published in Print: March 11, 1992, as Tenn. Governor To Sign Long-Awaited School-Reform Bill
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