Money for Schools Is a Major Concern For Legislatures
Money for schools is much on the minds of state legislators as they convene this month.
All around the country--even in the thriving Western states--educators, legislators, and legislative staffs are worried about replacing funds lost to federal budget cuts, about providing enough money for vocational and special education, and about distributing both state and federal money in an equitable way.
Tax Increases Sought
In some states--Illinois, for instance--education associations and even governors are calling for tax increases to soften the blows of inflation and federal cuts. But, although school improvement is a recurrent theme, in most cases tax increases would provide little new money after inflation; new initiatives, as one analyst put it, "don't have much of a prayer."
"Money is certainly one of the top three issues," said Ron Field, chief education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In New York, Gov. Hugh L. Carey has pro®MDNM¯posed a freeze on state aid to school districts--an idea that "will go over like a lead balloon," remarked a legislative aide. And in Indiana, the increase in state assistance is likely to be even smaller than last year's 4-percent hike, which local school officials complained was grossly inadequate even in the face of declining enrollments.
Even in Arizona, a "boom" state, "This is a very tight money year," said State Senator Anne Lindeman.
Thirty-nine legislatures convened this month--some in emergency or off-year sessions for narrowly defined purposes--and another four are scheduled to meet in regular session later this year.
Among the other top educational concerns of legislators, according to an informal survey by the Advanced Leadership Program Ser-vices Offices of the Education Commission of the States, are:
Competence, tenure, and certification of teachers. Legislators from 14 states listed these concerns as among their top priorities. The testing of teachers as a requirement for certification is expected to be an issue in many states.
Federal budget cuts and block grants. At least two legislatures have already taken up the question of distributing block-grant funds, and legislators from several other states indicated in the survey that they would follow suit.
School effectiveness. While it appears that few states will add new programs to their required curricula, several are exploring ways to improve the quality of their schools. The education of gifted students is a high priority in Nebraska, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, for example, while Mississippi's governor is seeking to establish statewide kindergarten. The perennial question of minimum-competency testing also is expected to resurface in many states this session.
"Scientific creationism." Despite a federal judge's ruling earlier this month that "creation science" may not be taught in the public schools of Arkansas, the question is expected to come before at least three legislatures. The Mississippi Senate has already approved a bill requiring "equal time" for creationist theory and evolution theory; it awaits action in the House.
Equity in school finance. While this is a persistent issue for the legislatures, many analysts believe that few states will address the problem unless they are ordered by the courts to do so. The reason, observers say, is that few states have enough money for "leveling up," or bringing the per-pupil expenditures of poor districts into line with the expenditures of wealthier districts.
Two exceptions appear to be New York and Georgia. Although New York's highest court has yet to rule on the state's school-finance law (although lower courts have found it unconstitutional), Governor Carey is expected to introduce legislation next month. And in Georgia, where the state Supreme Court has ruled that the finance system is inequitable but nonetheless constitutionally acceptable, the legislature has commissioned a study and is expected to consider changes in this session or the next one.
Below is a look at some of the major education issues in selected state legislatures.