N.J. Governor Agrees To Delay School-Voucher Legislation
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey retreated somewhat last week from her strong support of a proposed school-voucher program for Jersey City.
In her State of the State address on Jan. 10, Mrs. Whitman announced that instead of pushing legislation this year to allow the voucher experiment, which would include private schools, she will appoint a 15-member commission to study the idea.
"Because of the questions surrounding this issue, the Senate president, the Speaker, and I have agreed to establish a task force to examine all aspects of vouchers," the Governor said.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Whitman said she remained an advocate of the idea.
"We will propose legislation in time to be implemented for the 1996 school year," she said. "Vouchers are a daring educational experiment. The only thing we have to fear is success."
The postponement was a setback for voucher proponents in the state, who include Roman Catholic leaders and Republican Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City, who has been advocating such an experiment for more than a year.
Mr. Schundler expressed disappointment about the postponement, although he said he has agreed to serve on the task force.
"The interest of legislative leaders to postpone action on Jersey City's education crisis is a clear example of why parental choice in education is needed," he said in a prepared statement. "Justice for our children will never be secured as long as their futures are in the hands of politicians."
The proposal under discussion for the last year would give low-income residents of Jersey City certificates that could be used at any private school. An anti-voucher campaign led by the New Jersey Education Association appears to have raised doubts among some state legislators.
On other education issues, Governor Whitman said she would press forward with efforts to develop rigorous curriculum standards for the state. She said she would host a conference on curriculum standards in March with educators, business and labor leaders, and parents.
In an expanded printed version of her message, the Governor also proposed developing a statewide 4th-grade "early warning" test to "provide critical benchmarks of progress at regular intervals."
Mrs. Whitman also promised a new round of tax cuts, although she held off on the details.
Gov. Wilson Calls For Educational Overhaul
Gov. Pete Wilson of California called on state leaders last week to rewrite the state's entire education code over the next two years.
Proclaiming "it's time to start over," Mr. Wilson called the state's 7,523-page set of education laws too broken to fix.
"Its 11 volumes...have prescribed everything from how many electrical sockets must be in each classroom to how many fruit trees can be on a school campus," he said in his State of the State address. He promised that his first education bill will be a plan to abolish the entire education code by 1997.
"That will start the clock ticking for us to deliver a new foundation on which we can remake California schools," said Mr. Wilson, who is starting his second term.
The Republican Governor's clout should be boosted this year by his party's election gains, which give the G.O.P. control of the Assembly. The Senate remains under Democratic control.
Touching on themes he would like to see in a new education plan, Governor Wilson said he wants to insure parents' right to request their children's schools and teachers, monitor classes, and meet with teachers and see test scores. Further, he said, the state board of education should work with textbook publishers to prepare a guide for parents.
Mr. Wilson also said lawmakers should consider drastic changes in the state's teacher-certification system, including the repeal of tenure, the adoption of merit pay, and expanded alternative-credentialing plans.
"Why, when confronted with a dearth of qualified teachers of science and math, do we ignore the talent and experience of retired or out-of-work aerospace and military personnel?" he said.
In addition, Mr. Wilson recommended implementing a standardized-testing plan and retaining students who do not meet minimum standards for their grade levels. He also said he would support a "governor's diploma" program to recognize students who have met the state's highest school standards.
The Education Commission of the States is expected to unveil a reform strategy it has drafted for Governor Wilson next month that contains many of the themes mentioned in last week's address.
While his education agenda is more ambitious than in previous years, the Governor included it in a speech that promised serious activity on several other fronts.
Most notably, he called for a 15 percent across-the-board tax reduction over the next three years.
Mr. Wilson also pledged himself to welfare reform. He said that in addition to legislation he may introduce, he will convene a statewide "fathers' summit" this year to discuss the impact of absent fathers on children and the welfare system.
Gov. Dean's AddressRaises Teachers' Ire
Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont has presented a plan to reform the state's property-tax system and link every elementary and secondary school in the state to a global electronic network.
But his policy proposals--unveiled this month in his Inaugural Address, which served as Mr. Dean's State of the State address--got less of a reaction than a section of the speech calling on educators to improve the quality of education. Teachers reacted angrily to his remarks.
Under the Governor's tax proposal, more sales-tax revenue would be distributed through the state-aid formula, and a minimum local property-tax rate would be established. According to the Governor, only towns with high property wealth and extremely low property taxes would be affected. They would be required to share their wealth with other communities, and increases in local spending would be capped.
The Governor also proposed merging the state education department with the department of employment and training to better prepare students for work and streamline the state bureaucracy.
In his remarks that displeased teachers, Mr. Dean said schools "teach to mediocrity," and related a story about his 4th-grade daughter, who had cried one night because she was bored in school.
"Our teachers just reacted," said Marlene R. Burke, the president of the Vermont Education Association. "It was like a slap in the face. We are up to our earlobes in restructuring our schools."
Governor Dean responded with an open letter to teachers in which he stressed that he was not blaming them for the schools' problems. But he also criticized the union for interpreting his speech as an attack on teachers, and urged its leadership to "play a more constructive role in the education-reform debate."
Early last week, the union sent an open letter back to the Governor, accepting his explanation and outlining six additional steps "to insure that no child is 'bored to tears' in school." They included limits on inclusion for special-needs children, as well as maintaining spending levels and low teacher-student ratios.
The letter also rejected the Governor's proposal to move responsibility for teacher retirement from the state to local communities, saying it would "crush local school budgets."
Pataki Vows Tax Cuts, Targets Board of Regents
Incoming Gov. George E. Pataki of New York greeted his former legislative colleagues in his State of the State speech with a proposal to cut state income taxes by 25 percent over four-years.
"We begin here today by acknowledging a simple fact: The government of New York is too big and it spends too much money," said Mr. Pataki, a Republican who will work with a G.O.P..-controlled Senate and an Assembly where Republicans picked up seats but remain the minority party.
One early target for the Governor is the state board of regents, which oversees precollegiate and higher education as well as professional licensing.
Mr. Pataki said the board should be abolished, though that effort, which would require a constitutional amendment, faces an uphill battle with lawmakers who appoint the regents.
The Governor also proposed that lawmakers schedule a single day for statewide voting on local school board races and approval of school budgets, an attempt to increase voter turnout.
And while appearing more cordial with lawmakers than former Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Governor Pataki pledged not to approve emergency-appropriations bills to pay the state's bills if the legislature goes beyond its April 1 budget deadline.
Vol. 14, Issue 17