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Massachusetts legislators last week unveiled a compromise on the contentious issue of school choice, thus moving a major step closer to passing a comprehensive education-reform bill.

The agreement resolved differences between the Senate bill, which proposed to make the state's existing voluntary choice program mandatory for school districts, and the House measure, which would have placed a moratorium on the program.

The plan issued by the joint education committee draws on compromise proposals offered by Gov. William F. Weld. (See Education Week, May 26, 1993.)

Under the agreement, to take effect in the 1993-94 school year, all districts would have the opportunity to implement choice programs. But student participation would be limited to 2 percent, about 17,000 pupils, of statewide enrollment.

Districts that did not want to receive students transferring from other districts could opt out of the program after a series of public hearings and school board votes.

To deter districts from claiming that they do not have room to accept new students, the final bill contains a controversial Senate provision to require districts to provide information on seat-space capacity to the state.

Another hotly debated provision of the bill would place a two-year delay on the opening of independent, publicly funded charter schools. It would also limit the number of charter schools to 25 statewide and cap enrollment at 6,000 students.

The Florida legislature, not school districts, has the authority to set local property-tax rates, the state supreme court has ruled.

The state school-finance formula imposes property-tax limits in an effort to insure funding equity among the state's 67 districts. But a group of local officials challenged the law, arguing that communities should have the ability to tax at a higher rate to improve their schools.

Observers said the court ruling last month may spark another finance lawsuit aimed at forcing state lawmakers to fully fund education programs if they continue to limit local ability to raise funds.

In her opinion, Chief Justice Rosemary Burkett noted that the legal challenge did not question whether the state was doing enough.

"I would hope that school districts now direct their efforts toward assuring adequate state funding for all the educational needs of our children,'' she wrote.

The Illinois legislature has passed a bill to provide nearly $1 million to a Chicago-area school district that has threatened to close for lack of funds.

The bill would provide $980,000 to North Chicago Unit School District #187, which is facing a $1.5 million budget shortfall this fiscal year. The district, which has 4,300 students, voted in March to dissolve and send its students to neighboring districts. (See Education Week, April 7, 1993.)

Observers said the bill puts Gov. Jim Edgar in a difficult political situation. Earlier this year he criticized the district for mismanaging its finances and voting to dissolve.

On the other hand, Mr. Edgar, a Republican, relies on political support from the well-to-do suburbs surrounding North Chicago, which would be forced to take on additional students if the district dissolves.

Vol. 12, Issue 36

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