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Fiscal Issues Top Concern of Policymakers, Surveys Show

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Raising sufficient funds for public schools and distributing the money equitably are the top concerns of policy leaders in state government and education, according to surveys released last week by the Education Commission of the States (ecs).

General fiscal problems--including both short-term revenue shortfalls and anticipated long-range deficits--were reported in 39 states, according to the surveys, and 13 states listed the impact of federal budget cuts as one of their most pressing problems. Even the "energy-rich'' states that are not experiencing shortfalls are discussing ways to control costs, the surveys indicate.

Finance Reform Major Concern

And although many school-finance analysts have predicted that the reform movement of the 1970's would lose its momentum, policy leaders in 33 states reported that finance reform was a major concern.

Furthermore, only 10 of those states indicated that they were responding to court decisions or threatened litigation--an indication that leaders in many states may be more interested in voluntary finance reform than had been widely expected.

The Denver-based commission, a nonprofit consortium of 48 states, compiled the information from five surveys of more than 1,000 governors, governors' aides, legislative leaders, chief state school officers, state higher-education officers, state boards of education, and representatives of local school districts and postsecondary institutions.

Even in areas not directly related to finance, the respondents to the ecs surveys tended to draw in the money question. For example, leaders in 16 states expressed concern about holding down costs in special education as well as extending services to preschool children.

And in nine states, survey respondents said that governance of elementary and secondary schools, "tied in with finance issues," required their attention. The main concern, according to Robert Jackson Jr., a spokesman for ecs, appears to be the amount of state control that accompanies state aid to school districts--and whether state control should be lessened as revenue shortfalls cause state financial support to decline.

The economic slump that is causing the states' fiscal problems is also directing state leaders' attention to another school issue: vocational education. "It's happening in just about every state, it's safe to say," Mr. Jackson said. "There's a lot more concern about vocational programs and job training."

While questions of quality ranked near the top of the list of issues in postsecondary education, they tended to be subordinated to financial problems in elementary and secondary schools.

Nonetheless, school improvement, the quality of teachers, and programs for gifted and talented students were cited as major concerns in more than 10 states.

Detailed Survey

A separate report, based on detailed surveys of policymakers in higher education, indicates that some of the major issues in postsecondary education bear directly on policy decisions in elementary and secondary schools.

State leaders responding to the higher-education survey said they were concerned about the need for expensive remedial college courses for students inadequately prepared in high school. And the survey results strongly indicated that many states will consider dropping "open admissions" at their institutions of higher learning.

Leaders in state government and education have identified the following issues as their top concerns in education, according to the Education Commission of the States. The list was developed from responses to five surveys and from state officials' requests for information from the commission. The number of states reporting high concern or requesting information about the issue is given in parentheses.

General fiscal problems in state government and their effects on education (36)

School-finance reform (33) including:

Court cases recently decided, pending, or anticipated (10)

Legislative changes in the current program (19)

Other finance-reform activities (4)

Updating or replacing physical facilities in state institutions of higher education (29)

Quality and competence of teachers; certification (29)

Basic skills, remedial programs, and admission requirements in postsecondary education; relationship between secondary and postsecondary education (29)

General quality of postsecondary education (24)

Governance and structure of postsecondary education (17)

Special education; controlling costs and extending services to preschool children (16)

Quality in elementary and secondary education; school improvement or effectiveness (15)

Gifted and talented students (13)

General impact of federal budget cuts (13)

Vocational education; employment and training; relationship between vocational education, community colleges, and other programs (13)

Creation science (12)

Increasing tuition at postsecondary institutions (12)

Quality of off-campus postsecondary programs (12)

Consolidation and cuts in federal aid to college students (11)

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