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Michigan Plan to Reform Schools Stirs Local Debate, National Interest

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MICHIGAN once again is being thrown into the center of the national debate over the future of public education.

Calling the public-school system an ``educational gulag'' and ``a monopoly of mediocrity,'' Gov. John Engler (R) of Michigan this week unveiled a plan to radically restructure the state's schools.

At the center of his program, unveiled before a joint session of the state Legislature, are two proposals that would allow parents to choose among the schools within their district, and foster the creation of ``charter schools'' possibly run by private organizations and funded with state tax dollars.

The controversial plan comes less than two months after the state became the first in the nation to abolish the use of local property taxes to fund public education.

The plan proposes a variety of new taxes to replace property levies, which accounted for two-thirds of the state's $9 billion education budget.

In essence, Republicans, who control the state Senate and hold a slight ideological edge in the House of Representatives, have seized this opportunity to reform public education in a more conservative image.

``What John Engler is doing in Michigan undoubtedly makes him a pivotal player in the national education reform debate,'' says William Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration. ``He is walking a tightrope, to be sure, but has shown what an activist governor can do.''

The bill to abolish local property taxes was sponsored by state Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The levies were unpopular because Michigan's property taxes were among the nation's highest. But Ms. Stabenow, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Mr. Engler in 1994, was denounced by teachers' unions and Democratic loyalists, who charged that her bill was only political posturing.

Stabenow maintains that the old system perpetuated too many funding inequities between rich and poor districts. With local property values as the funding base, Michigan's 559 school districts spent from $3,500 to nearly $10,000 per pupil on education.

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