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Finance Experts Debate Effects Of Reform Efforts on Funding

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Orlando, Fla--Experts in education-finance issues, meeting here this month, agreed that the recent wave of school-reform initiatives does not directly address their concerns about the unequal distribution of the resources that support public schools, but expressed hope that increased state support for schools will be a byproduct of those efforts.

Participants at the annual meeting of the American Educational Finance Association said that last year's release of major reports critical of education could fundamentally alter the debate about financing education for years to come.

"There is an uneasiness among some people who were involved with the equity movement of the 1970's; they are wondering if the excellence push will result in a benign neglect of equity issues," said Allan Odden of the Education Commission of the States.

Mr. Odden said some of the excellence initiatives, such as the creation of career-ladder programs in many states, could serve as a wedge for increasing state responsibility for financing education--which generally leads to more nearly equal expenditures between districts.

The initiatives in Florida, Tennessee, and other states, Mr. Odden said, were designed to meet the "quality" concerns of the excellence movement. Because they are being pushed by state governments, their considerable costs probably will be borne by state governments for many years--which means that the states' share in financing education will increase, he suggested.

"The states are not going to be able to let go of that after a few years. They're going to have to be in it for a long, long time," said Mr. Odden. "You can't be serious about a career-ladder plan, and then just get out and have the districts take over the costs."

Advocates of finance reform contend that the federal and state governments should make a greater contribution to school budgets. They say that reliance on local property taxes to finance education creates inequality because of the degree to which local property values vary.

Equity Emphasized

Although the experts meeting here agreed that schools can improve their operations significantly without major infusions of new funds, they also expressed concern that the traditional issues of the equity movement are not being addressed in the current wave of education reform.

James A. Kelly, president of the Spring Hill Center, a Minnesota conference center, said the excellence movement has "opened a window of opportunity" through which education officials can seek the money they need to improve their programs. But he added that "the recent reports barely even mention equity. Indeed, the present Administration is against equity. Instead, they support school prayer."

Most meeting participants said they expect the states to increase their support of education substantially over the next five years, mostly through increases in state sales taxes. David Florio, Washington representative of the American Educational Research Association, said public support of property taxes is still low, but support for the sales-tax increases is "phenomenal."

However, Will S. Myers, manager of research services for the National Education Association, said states would probably resist assuming a greater share of education costs because of their greater responsibility for financing domestic programs under the Reagan Administration's "new federalism."

Efficiency Is Needed

Even with increased funding, the meeting participants said, districts should undertake programs to improve the efficiency of their current operations.

For example, Richard A. Rossmiller, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said a study he is conducting in elementary schools in Wisconsin has found that schools can increase at little expense the amount of instruction pupils receive.

Mr. Rossmiller and several assistants observed the behavior of pupils at four elementary schools as they progressed from the 3rd to the 5th grade. The study found that students were "actively engaged in learning" for only about one-third of the typical school year. The students were less engaged in their studies as they grew older, the study found.

Of 1,080 hours in the typical school year of 180 days, Mr. Rossmiller concluded from an analysis of the data from his and other studies, students spend only about 364 hours "on task." That proportion can be increased substantially, he said, with better inservice training for teachers.

Mr. Rossmiller and others also said special training institutes and career incentives could increase the productivity of prinicipals and other school administrators.

School districts can also improve the use of existing resources with better investment strategies, said John Senier, an official of the Penn3sylvania Department of Education. An analysis of the investment practices of 501 school districts in Pennsylvania between 1977-78 and 1981-82, Mr. Senier said, showed that many of the districts did not use the fluctuating interest rates to their advantage.

Investment earnings constituted between 0.44 percent and 6.66 percent of the districts' annual budgets during those years, the analysis showed. Districts with comprehensive investment policies tended to benefit "disproportionately" throughout the five-year period, Mr. Senier said, while others never benefited significantly from the investments.

Limited Resources

Two researchers who last year devised a school-finance system that they said would allow state governments "to derive maximum education effect from limited resources" described for participants their new format adapting the model to the district and school-building levels.

Thomas B. Parrish and Jay G. Chambers of Associates for Education Finance and Planning in San Jose, Calif., said their "resource cost model" already is being implemented in Illinois and Alaska. They said the district model is being field-tested by the Alameda Unified School District in California and will soon be tested at community colleges and universities.

The model determines levels of needed funding with what Mr. Parrish and Mr. Chambers called "an ingredients approach," which takes into account the local costs of a variety of education necessities, such as construction and maintenance of buildings, energy, salary increases, and educational materials.

But whatever method is used to determine need, the goal of a fairer distribution of education resources "will require more money [than states now appear to be able to allocate]," Mr. Chambers said, "because you have to have more winners than losers."

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