State Journal: Choice organizing; Amish exception

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A new national organization formed to promote school choice says it will focus on legislation and ballot initiatives at the state level.

Americans for School Choice, launched this month at a Washington news conference, includes two former U.S. secretaries of education--Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett--on its board of directors. The board also includes members of Congress, two governors, and several state legislators, including Polly Williams, the Wisconsin representative who pushed through Milwaukee's pioneering voucher program.

The group plans to focus on building state-level political organizations, either by creating them or affiliating with existing groups, such as California's EXCEL.

The group's goals include organizing 1994 ballot initiatives in five states, followed by eight more in 1996, and engineering lobbying campaigns in four legislatures next year, followed by eight more in 1996.

The group intends to "focus attention on a limited number of battles so we can marshal resources and win victories at the state and local level that will accelerate the national movement,'' its literature says.

The organization also promises to set up privately funded scholarship programs for low-income families in 15 cities before 1995, and to launch fund-raising efforts to benefit state and local groups.

With county officials in Wisconsin threatening to close a one-room schoolhouse built for Amish students in the town of Augusta, the legislature is considering whether to exempt Amish schools from state health and safety standards.

A 1991 state law removed an exemption from some code requirements for rural schools. As a result, opening a school with a wood-burning stove, an outhouse, and no illuminated exit signs, such as the one in Augusta, is now illegal.

There are several other Amish schools in the same area, but they were built before the new law took effect.

Sen. David Zien has introduced legislation that would exempt one-room schools run by religious groups from rules that violate their beliefs.

The bill was approved by a Senate panel last month, and "the prospects are very good for getting it through the Senate'' before the legislature adjourns this month, according to Bob Seitz, a spokesman for Mr. Zien. Mr. Seitz acknowledged, however, that the bill may face more opposition in the Assembly.

Eau Claire County officials "have agreed to hold off'' on closing the school while the bill is pending, Mr. Seitz said.--J.M.

Vol. 13, Issue 07

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