Republican Revolution Postponed

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The House GOP leadership made a mistake, Simpkins says now, by including former school administrators and teachers (who favor more traditional school reform) in the party's 12-to-6 majority on the education committee. "We screwed up,'' the lawmaker says. "We just put too many educators on the education committee.''

Simpkins' frustrations are hardly his alone. Seven months after the GOP revolution at the polls, many states have yet to see a revolution in education policy.

Expectations of big change ran high after the Republican landslide last November tilted the membership of many statehouses to the right. Nationwide, the GOP picked up 480 legislative seats, the party's biggest gains at the state level in a generation. Also, 14 of the 19 new governors and six of the eight state schools superintendents elected last year carried the GOP banner. "Clearly, the status quo is in trouble,'' the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, proclaimed at the time.

Despite such predictions, the status quo so far has held in many states where it was thought that Republican gains would translate into policy makeovers.

In Florida, where Republicans grabbed control of the Senate and the state superintend-ent's office, GOP measures promoting prayer in school, charter schools, and tuition vouchers for private schools advanced but ultimately failed. Vouchers also failed in Arizona, defying proponents' hopes that the election of choice-champion Lisa Graham as schools chief would propel their initiatives into law. In Connecticut, meanwhile, Gov. John Rowland, the state's first Republican chief executive in 24 years, "supported virtually total reform,'' one observer says, "but he got virtually nothing.''

Such defeats have surprised those who had braced for apocalyptic change. "We were worried about the new political climate, but things didn't turn out as bad as we thought they would,'' says Sheila Simmons of the National Education Association's Center for the Preservation of Public Education.

The GOP has successfully spearheaded drives to cut state education departments and promote local control of schools in such states as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. And Republicans could still record big wins in several others.

But Republican policy successes appear to be limited largely to governance changes, and even those did not succeed everywhere. In Connecticut and Montana, for example, moves to restructure the state's role in education failed. And while Florida approved pink slips for some 300 of its 1,450 education department employees, it balked at a proposal to throw out its current education code and write a new one from scratch.

Also, the bumper crop of bills promoting charter schools, private school vouchers, and tuition tax credits has yet to pay off.

Charter school laws have passed in eight states--Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wyoming--but observers say most are watered-down plans that don't give schools great freedom. "A lot of the people sponsoring good bills decided to just fold them up, put them in their pocket, and wait for next year,'' says Ted Kolderie of the Minneapolis-based Center for Policy Studies.

Similarly, while more than 20 states have considered tuition voucher bills this year, no statewide proposal has yet to make the leap into law. One of the best chances faded in June when Republican House leaders in Pennsylvania postponed a vote on Gov. Tom Ridge's choice plan, apparently because it did not have the votes to pass.

The silver lining for choice advocates is that vouchers and charters gained legislative ground in a number of places. Lawmakers in Wisconsin, for example, expanded Milwaukee's voucher plan--the first in the nation--to include religious schools, and those in Ohio approved a similar plan for Cleveland. (Opponents say they will challenge both bills in court, arguing that they are an unconstitutional mix of church and state.) In Illinois, the Senate passed a voucher proposal for the first time. And a number of governors who shelved their choice plans this year to focus on pressing budget issues have said they will make them a high priority next year.

"We thought that '95 would be the year,'' says Allyson Tucker, policy director of the National Policy Forum in Washington and a school-choice advocate. "But now it seems that '95 will be the preparation year for '96.''

Vol. 06, Issue 09, Page 1-24

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