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Experts Predict Struggle Ahead To Maintain Education Funding

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Phoenix--The excellence movement notwithstanding, public schools will have to fight in the second half of the decade just to maintain their current per-pupil spending levels, two leaders of the school-finance community asserted at a meeting here this month.

Speaking at the annual American Education Finance Association conference, Allen Odden, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, and Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, said dollars have not flowed into education at the rate educators had anticipated when the push for excellence began.

Mr. Odden said that while a comprehensive reform package should cost a state 20 percent of its current operating expenditures, only two states, South Carolina and Tennessee, have approached that level of spending increase. "Since 1983, funding has increased, but only 6 percent in real terms, hardly enough to finance education reform," he said. ''In short, while many states have enacted comprehensive education reforms, many elements of those reforms are underfunded."

Mr. Odden added that none of the reform measures now being considered in state legislatures calls for a tax increase. "It seems that strength will be needed to maintain a steady fiscal state rather than used to produce gradual increases in real resources," he said.

Enrollments To Increase

Mr. Kirst, who gave the closing address at the conference, concurred with Mr. Odden. "The reform movement in terms of expenditures has slowed and nearly stopped," he said.

Although school expenditures per pupil have risen by almost 19 percent in real terms since 1979, Mr. Kirst attributed that increase primarily to enrollment declines that were not accompanied by a corresponding decline in staff.

Throughout the rest of the decade, enrollments will increase, "and that will require a 5 percent increase in real expenditures just to stay even," Mr. Kirst said.

"The new game is that we need more money to fund more pupils," he added. "And after that, will we have anything left over for school improvement?"

Equity and Excellence

The aefa, a broad-based group of scholars, teachers' representatives, and education officials, was founded 10 years ago in the midst of the school-finance reform movement, when equity was the dominant issue of the day.

Now, however, the group finds itself divided by issues of choice and excellence, which some feel conflict with equity.

Many seem to share the opinion that while the equity movement focused on those who did most poorly in school, the excellence movement tends to focus on the high achievers. As K. Forbis Jordan of the Congressional Research Service pointed out: "It's getting a lot more popular to invest money in gifted-and-talented programs."

But Mr. Odden asserted that in most cases excellence reforms have been placed "on top of equity pro-grams, with funding increases provided for all."

According to Mr. Odden, states have allocated three-fourths of new spending through their finance-equalization formulas, "further enhancing fiscal equity objectives."

"Contrary to popular worry, equity has benefited from the emphasis on excellence, not been swept aside by it," he said.

'Only Game in Town'

Moreover, Mr. Kirst told the gathering that the excellence movement was now "the only game in town," and that they, as leaders of the education community, "have a stake in keeping it going."

He said that educators need to demonstrate that the excellence movement has been a success, otherwise a host of "major societal negative forces" could combine to curtail spending on public schools.

Among those forces, he cited the rise in single-parent families and the growth of the elderly population, both of which demand services that compete with public education for tax revenues; reductions in federal aid; limitations on local property taxes; and an influx of immigrants, with a concommitant backlash against bilingual education.

"Unless the education reforms can be sustained, the negative things will take over," Mr. Kirst said. "We need positive results."

He said a study he is working on will demonstrate "dramatic increases in kids taking math and science" and urged his audience to develop similar measures of achievement. "If we can show that, a lot of people will be impressed, and we can buy some time," he said.

Choice Debated

A highlight of the conference was a lively mock debate on choice, moderated by the University of California law professor John E. Coons, who led an unsuccessful campaign in 1982 to place an education-voucher initiative on the California ballot.

Two states, Colorado and Minnesota, are now considering some form of legislative voucher proposal.

In the case under discussion at the conference, panel members debated whether a female high-school student should be allowed to transfer to a school in another district.

Several argued that district boundaries serve an important purpose and that if students could transfer freely, it would siphon off the most active parents, who would otherwise push for improved local schools.

But others argued that allowing students to cross district lines would stimulate districts to upgrade their services, lest they lose all their students.

A show of hands at the end of the session produced a slim victory for those against choice, suggesting the differences among the organization's members on the issue.

Mr. Kirst, however, predicting that the Colorado and Minnesota initiatives would fail, said the excellence movement has made choice largely a "symbolic" issue.

The public schools are now "on probation," he said, "to see if they can shape up." Choice will only become a major issue if the excellence movement is perceived to have failed, he said.

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