Reform Bill's Prospects in Ala. Appear To Dim

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The prospects for enacting court-ordered education reform when the Alabama legislature convenes next month appear mixed at best, and the chances of fully funding the nearly $1 billion effort seem highly unlikely, observers said last week.

Some likened the current situation to that of 1992, when a package of education and tax reforms passed the House but died in the Senate, or the 1991 passage of a school-reform measure that was never funded.

"It's going to be a little tougher than tough,'' said Sen. Fred Horn, the chairman of the committee on finance and taxation for the education fund. "We're going to cross our fingers and hope for [a] miracle.''

"I think we'll have a reform package done without complete funding of it,'' said Rep. Taylor Harper, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a champion of the 1992 reform effort.

One political scientist was even more blunt about the chances of fully funded education reform.

"The leadership is not in existence either in the administration or state legislature to cause this to come about in 1994,'' said Keith Ward, the director of the center for governmental services at Auburn University.

"We're pretty good at passing things without the money,'' he said.

Even a court order may not do much to spur legislative action, Mr. Ward predicted, citing Texas's drawn-out court-ordered reform.

"A judge has powers only so far as the people are willing to enforce what he orders,'' Mr. Ward said.

Mr. Harper said that only a "hardball'' tactic from Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese, such as "impounding'' the education trust fund--cutting off all school monies--would push the legislature to act.

Next year is an election year for Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. and legislators, making political pressures not to raise taxes enormous. Also working against legislative action is the lack of a popular outcry demanding major changes to education, legislators said.

"The public is not fired up on this. ... We've got too much complacency,'' Mr. Harper said.

But reformers remain determined to create just such a groundswell.

"We think that that can dramatically affect legislators' attitudes,'' said Cathy Gassenheimer, the managing director of A-Plus, a citizens' group that has tried to rally grassroots support for reform.

Special Session Nixed

In part because of the political handwriting on the wall, Governor Folsom said last month that he will not call a special legislative session this month, as had been expected, to address equitably and adequately funding the state's school system, as ordered by Judge Reese. (See Education Week, Nov. 3, 1993.)

Instead, education reform and taxes will compete for time with the state budget in the 30 days of the regular legislative session.

In order to even consider any legislation other than the budget, a budget-isolation measure must pass by a 60 percent majority--an obstacle in itself, Mr. Ward said.

When he made the announcement last month, Mr. Folsom said the impetus to delay legislative consideration until January came from a need for the Alabama Commission on School Performance and Accountability to finish its work.

The group was to have an initial report ready by Dec. 1, but now says it needs until next month to finish it. Created by executive order this year, the panel is to flesh out the recommendations made in October by the Governor's task force on education reform, such as rewards and sanctions for school performance and specific learner objectives.

"The best way for anybody to be able to form a reasoned opinion on that is for our commission to have completed a substantial portion of work,'' said Mike Warren, the commission's acting chair and the president of Energen and Alabama Gas.

Lawmakers also were concerned about the prospects for a special session because they had not seen the Governor's draft reform bill.

Vol. 13, Issue 13

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